Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is apparently based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, but I think Ninja Theory have pulled a fast one. Yes, the character names are the same and there’s some kind of journey involved, but I’m pretty sure ancient eastern literature didn’t go in too much for giant robot scorpions the way Enslaved does.

Years of steroid abuse have transformed Sun Wukong the Monkey King into a gruff, feral nomad who rides an unfeasibly huge motorbike. Tripitaka (Xuanzang in the original text) has suffered an inexplicable gender shift and is now a sassy, tech-savvy chick that looks suspiciously like the protagonist from one of Ninja Theory’s earlier games, and fantastical Ancient China is now post-apocalyptic New York, ravaged by a global war that has something to do with robots. I understand that adapting classic literature is never going to be a smooth ride, but Enslaved is so far removed from its “source material” that I’m just going to treat it as its own intellectual property and forget about JttW altogether.

It’s the future again and humanity is on its last legs, struggling to survive in a world overrun with an army of bloodthirsty mechs who work for some shady organisation called Pyramid. Our protagonist is a chap called Monkey (voiced by Andy Serkis), who at the start of the game is trapped aboard a giant slave ship that’s plummeting rapidly towards the ground. During his acrobatic escape he meets a hot young woman called Tripitaka, and together they manage to survive the crash. When he wakes up, he finds that his new friend has strapped a magic headband around his noggin and if he doesn’t stay close to her and do exactly what she says his head will explode. Trip needs to get back home, 300 miles away across the dangerous wasteland, and because she’s a vulnerable stereotype she needs Monkey’s help to do it. Enter the player.

The whole headband thing is an intriguing concept, but its presence is in service to the narrative rather than the gameplay. It only really has any effect on Monkey during scripted sequences, and at various points the game completely forgets about it and lets the pair of them run around huge distances apart. Other than that it’s just a neat way of keeping Monkey shackled to the plot without having to waste time explaining his backstory and motivations. It also has little glitches which give Monkey visions of what the world was like before the war, which gain significance later on and also add a layer of interesting mystique to the story which is otherwise absent in the overarching narrative.

The underlying problem with Enslaved’s narrative is that it presents us with too many things we’re supposed to just blithely accept. Why did this war occur? Who are the bad guys? Who are we rooting for and why should we care? Why are Monkey’s hands so big? All of these things are never really answered, and without wishing to spoil anything, the ending (while reasonably well done) offers little in the way of closure. An antagonist is only truly effective when they’re characterised in such a way that we naturally root for the hero. A game can’t just tell you to feel certain emotions about certain characters; if it’s doing its job correctly, you’ll be feeling them anyway, but an entity without personality, motive or, in this case at least, even an identity, doesn’t create the feelings of antipathy that we should have for the bad guy.

(Note: Enslaved’s bad guy figure does have all of the above elements, he just isn’t introduced until the final ten minutes, so the point still stands).

I wasn’t actually going to write about Enslaved at all, but reading Michael Abbott’s essay on the game really brought it to the forefront of my mind. His thoughts follow a very similar trajectory to mine and our opinions on the narrative structure and the fusion of gameplay and storytelling elements run almost parallel, but I wanted to take a little time out to expand on some of the things (both positive and negative) that really stood out for me personally. However, I strongly suggest you read his essay for a broader impression of the game as a whole.

The overall pacing is pretty bad: the opening is strong, the ending is strong, but the middle chapters are a dreary concoction of repetitive design decisions. There’s a reasonable balance of combat and exploration, but both are flawed in such a way that neither are as fulfilling as they could be.

In particular, the “platforming” mechanic really bothered me. Performing complex acrobatic a sequence is phenomenally satisfying, but only when risk is involved. Consider the difference between a jump that you actually perform yourself (the kind you might find in Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia) and a jump that the game performs for you. In Enslaved, Monkey won’t move to another ledge or platform unless the analog stick is pointing in the appropriate direction. If you’re trying to jump to an object that looks like it can accommodate you and actually can’t, Monkey won’t attempt the leap and fall to his death; he simply won’t jump at all. Removing this sense of danger also eradicates any sense of thrill or accomplishment. This isn’t platforming, it’s just moving in a ridiculously obtuse way.

What did impress me, though, were the visual design and the flamboyant artistic direction. The early chapters in particular are lush, vibrant landscapes; bright, natural colours (especially green) are juxtaposed with the tattered architecture of a ruined civilisation, and the overall effect is dazzling. It reminded me of Dante’s Inferno in a way, another game (also based on classic literature, incidentally) which was quite mediocre in almost all areas other than aesthetic design. There’s something to be said for an interesting-looking world, regardless of how you are forced to interact with it.

In the end, though, Enslaved simply isn’t strong enough as a whole to capitalise on the few things it does do reasonably well. It’s not a bad game; it’s ambitious, has high production values and the talent behind it to help it tell an excellent story; it’s just more concerned with emulating the core elements from other, better games than standing out from the crowd. It’s a shame, but hardly a surprise.

Duke Nukem Forever (Revisited)

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I was unkind to Duke.

That isn’t an apology, and I’m not about to retract the statements I made about Duke Nukem Forever. It’s simply an admission; me holding my hands up and saying “Ok, I was a little hasty”.

You may recall that, in my last piece about the game, I mentioned that I didn’t finish it. That’s something that happens rarely, if ever. There’s something about my personality that prevents me from leaving things unfinished, especially games, and even the most horrible, broken experiences I generally see through to the end.

So, in the interest of fairness, last night I gritted my teeth and returned to Duke Nukem Forever. I started a new game and endeavoured to claw my way through everything the game had to offer. I wasn’t expecting much, but it was playing on my mind. Plus, I needed the achievements.

It’s still pretty shit. But, and this is important, it’s not as shit as I thought it was.

I think playing through half of the game not really knowing what to expect worked to my advantage, in a way. All the shocking, distasteful stuff hit me then, and I could concentrate on other aspects during my second attempt. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still distasteful – there’s a lot of offensive stuff in Duke Nukem Forever, and that isn’t going to change. But, there’re still lots of things to enjoy here.

I insist that the obvious pop culture quotes and “power armour is for pussies” shit doesn’t work, but some of the subtler, self-referential stuff hits with a really satisfying note. Every time the game remembers that this is apparently satire and that not everyone in the world should be totally on board with Duke’s egotistical bravado, it’s funny. My favourite character was Corporal Dylan, who’s a superbly entertaining parody of the macho space marine trope, and has by far some of the funniest lines. His obvious Gears of War 2 reference was especially great, but his general over-enthusiasm, screaming, dudebro humour and consistent swearing were all pretty hilarious. He’s a far more effective parody than Duke, anyway.

While the glaring errors in judgement are still a bit jarring, especially in regards to the humour, I think it may be worth remembering that DNF isn’t the only game to miss the mark with its jokes. Sure, a lot of the gags fall flat, but that happens in a lot of games – it isn’t a problem specific to Duke.

In regards to the gameplay, most of the points I made in my previous post still stand. It does feel like a modern shooter trying to be a classic one. Enemies still do way too much damage – not enough to make it too difficult, but more than enough to prohibit the kind of play you’d think this game would demand. But, at least it works, which is more than I can say for some games.

I think part of the reason that the review scores for DNF have bothered me the more I have thought about them is that they are largely based on the humour, which while admittedly offensive is subject to personal taste. The gameplay holding the whole thing together is uninspired, but in fairness it’s not broken and at times is pretty fun.

A lot of the scenes as mini-Duke were a riot, particularly the sequence in the kitchen which sees the macho man hopping across burgers and hiding behind jars of mustard. When the shooting works (particularly when the shotgun is involved) it’s satisfying enough to run around performing executions and blowing pigs’ legs off, and the Shrink Ray is still really cool.

I don’t provide a numerical representation of my thoughts on a game, but if I did Duke Nukem Forever would be a comfortable 6, which, on a ten-point scale, is above average. But, let’s face it, nobody gives a shit about games rated less than 7 so I’m basically pissing in the wind here.

And I still think the Ego system is a really, really great idea.

Duke Nukem Forever

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You know that scene in Demolition Man in which Sylvester Stallone wakes up after being cryogenically frozen for three decades and has absolutely no idea what’s acceptable in this newfangled modern world? That’s the scene I kept picturing throughout Duke Nukem Forever, and unfortunately there was no plucky young Sandra Bullock to keep him in check and teach him how to behave.

Duke Nukem Forever is a relic. It’s a throwback to a time of gaming that many have largely forgotten – a time before regenerating health bars or power armour or gravity guns. Duke himself is the kind of iconic character that rose to stardom on the grounds that he had a name and voice and a personality, rather than being just another anonymous husk for players to move around. The fact he was a misogynistic, egotistical wanker is irrelevant.

Fortunately, the games industry has grown up since then. Unfortunately, Duke hasn’t.

Full disclosure: I haven’t played DNF to its conclusion. To be honest, I might not bother. From what I can tell I’m over half way through, and unless the latter levels deliver some kind of insane extravaganza of action, wit and ingenuity, my opinions on the game will remain the same.

Frankly, I don’t care how long DNF’s development cycle was. I’m not interested in how many publishers or developers had their hands on it, or whether or not the console versions are ports of a vastly superior PC version – I just don’t care. All that stuff is irrelevant. What matters is that Gearbox Software has delivered us a game that is uninspired, broken and offensive, hiding behind the idea that “this is what old-school shooters were like”.

No, it’s not.

Duke Nukem 3D was a great, seminal game. Discrediting the franchise as a whole just because it’s crass and offensive just doesn’t cut it, and if you call yourself any kind of FPS fan at all, you cannot deny what Duke 3D did for video games. South Park is crass and offensive, but it’s still successful because it’s funny and well-made, belying a deeper intelligence than is presented on the surface. The same goes for Duke 3D. Duke Nukem Forever believes it can get by on the merits of the character and the series alone, without providing us with any of the imagination and ambition that made its predecessor the game it is. In this modern age of video gaming, in such a competitive market, it just can’t. We need more.

I called DNF offensive a couple of paragraphs ago, and it is – yes, because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and yes, because it’s littered with homophobia and references to shady topics like abortion and rape. Would I overlook these things if the game itself was astounding? Probably. I have that liberty because I’m not the butt of the joke, though I respect anyone’s decision to avoid and discredit the game based on those issues. For me, Duke Nukem Forever is offensive because it’s just a bad game.

Early on in the campaign, some soldiers from the EDF offer Duke a suit of power armour that strongly resembles Master Chief’s. “Power armour is for pussies”, Duke exclaims, despite the fact that he has a regenerating health bar; a feature that was popularised by the very game he is undermining. DNF is littered with contradictions like this, and the constant acerbic sniping is tiresome. One cannot escape the fact that much of this game’s design embraces modern genre conventions – such as only being able to carry two weapons at once – but then proceeds to act like it is above such tropes. It’s the video game equivalent of a kid with cookie crumbs around his mouth who is denying eating all the cookies. Except the kid is a homophobe and the cookies are made of sexism.

The truth is, I’m really hoping for a new FPS that exudes the kind of over-the-top mentality that made the genre popular in the first place. People quickly forget that shooters are popular because shooting things is fun, and there’s nothing wrong with the Serious Sam model – y’know, the kind of game where you can carry three times your body weight in insane weaponry and circle strafe and rocket jump and shit. I want to see the kind of weapons we saw in the Turok games on Nintendo 64, things with alternate-fire modes that create mini nuclear explosions. Cover-based, tactical “realistic” shooting is fine and all, but I’d like to see something extravagant, like an arm-mounted tyrannosaurus rex that breathes plasma, or something. Somebody make that happen, please.

But I digress. Duke Nukem Forever is a linear, repetitive FPS that borrows heavily from the butt of its own jokes. It’s essentially a modern shooter with the limitations of a classic one; taking a couple of shots finds you needing cover, but there is no cover system. Hiding behind things seems contradictory, but then again contradictions are at least one thing that DNF does well.

I respect Randy Pitchford and his team for seeing this project through, but it’s such an obvious fan-wank that I can’t have any respect for the game itself. I will say this for it, though – being able to interact with the environment down to excruciatingly mundane detail sits really well with me. I want to be able to drink from taps, use the urinals, play pinball and lift weights. These things are a part of Duke’s world, and being rewarded for experimenting and performing “Duke-like” actions is a great idea. Unfortunately, it’s the only one Duke Nukem Forever has.

This game has its fans, I know that. People on the Internet will defend it until they’re blue in the face, and that’s fine. If you like it, good for you. Duke has a legacy, and there’s no escaping that. Some people find tasteless humour funny, and that’s fine, too. Hey, sometimes so do I – but I wouldn’t build a game around it, and I respect that not everyone has the same opinions on things as I do.

If nothing else, Duke Nukem Forever has reaffirmed my love and respect for Duke 3D, so I suppose at least one positive thing has come out of me playing it. Other than that, it’s a franchise that should have been left to the annals of history, and no matter how many contrived excuses DNF makes to shove some virtual tits in my face, that isn’t going to change.

Dead Space 2

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Dead Space 2 does so many things right it’s difficult to criticise it and not feel a bit guilty. In a way it’s the perfect sequel – it takes the best components of the previous game and develops them in new and interesting ways, while changing or removing the aspects that didn’t work. So why didn’t it thrill me as much as I thought it would?

It really is difficult to articulate. DS2 has a wealth of well-executed and creative ideas, but ironically its biggest failing is in the handling of its horror elements; presumably one of the game’s most predominant selling points.

The original Dead Space struggled to instil genuine fear in the player because it was let down by predictability, cliché and a dogged refusal to only use a good idea once. Like its predecessor, DS2 can certainly startle and unnerve, but it’s marred by the very same problems. Necromorphs still play dead, they still spring out of the same vents, and Isaac still hears whispering voices in his head during every quiet moment.

Yet DS2 is trying a lot harder than the original, and it shows. More time is devoted to moments of helplessness and despair (Isaac being grabbed by the ankle and dragged out into space, or his gradual slide into dementia) and the ghostly apparition of Nicole gets way too much airtime, popping up at several points during a chapter just to talk at Isaac through her glowing eyes and mouth. The effort that has gone into making this game scarier than the last is so obvious that it has had the opposite effect, making the whole thing seem almost slapstick, as though it’s parodying the entire horror genre.

This time around, though, Isaac Clarke is the strongest aspect of the game’s fiction rather than the weakest. Gunner Wright’s portrayal of the character is strong enough to keep a lot of the weak links held together, while Isaac’s mental and physical hardships lend the whole thing some much-needed conviction. While he isn’t the most original character, the sheer extent of his psychological damage is captivating enough that deciphering the last three years of his life becomes as important to you, the player, as it does to Isaac himself.

In terms of setting, the differences between one game and the other are admittedly marginal; the Sprawl maintains the same near-future industrialism and intentionally muted colour palette that characterised the dark, claustrophobic corridors of the Ishimura, but what sets it apart from both a mechanical and aesthetic standpoint is a real sense of it being habitable. Seeing the gradual destruction of a place that could have conceivably sustained an entire community resonates far deeper that it did aboard the harsh, mechanical husk that was the first game’s “planet-cracker” host.

Actually navigating the game world is now a lot more fluid and natural, too. Many of the small complaints I had about the first game’s control layout have been tidied up, with handy quick-use buttons for both stasis and med-kits, as well as a much more effective repertoire of melee attacks for when the enemy gets too close for comfort. The impressive Zero-G sections from the first game make a triumphant return, although this time you retain full control of Isaac as you guide him through the air as you see fit, rather than from one bit of solid ground to another.

The most jarring aspect of Dead Space 2 is the sheer regularity and intensity of its combat. When the original descended into third-person-corridor-shooter territory, it felt a little clumsy and off-key, but luckily DS2 seems built to accommodate the fast-paced, brutal violence on show here. The new (and old) weapons present an interesting selection of primary and alternate functions, allowing for creative approaches to battle that are both visually and tactically satisfying, though the idea of stomping on corpses to reveal items is a little bit of a step in the wrong direction.

What makes the combat so consistently gratifying and exciting, though, is its dynamism. In times of desperation, kinesis can be used to rip the claws off dead enemies, allowing Isaac to use them as projectiles. Numerous explosive and stasis canisters are scattered around the environment, which can be shot, thrown using kinesis, or accidently discharged by exploding necros. This occasionally results in the windows being blown out and the corridor rapidly de-pressurizing, with Isaac being dragged along the floor towards the vast nothingness of space, given only seconds to shoot the emergency lock and seal the chamber. This is phenomenal stuff, and the outrageously satisfying Spear Launcher weapon is just the icing on this particularly blood-soaked cake.

Once again, though, Dead Space 2 begins to fall apart in its final moments. Like the lacklustre final chapter of the first game, what we have here is a dull, linear end sequence filled with an overwhelming volume of enemies and no imagination. What’s worse is that even though it isn’t quite as trivial to defeat, the final boss makes even less sense than the Hive Mind, set within the confines of Isaac’s own battered brain against an enemy that isn’t really an enemy at all. Of course, though, you shoot the glowing yellow weak point.

While Dead Space 2 isn’t the groundbreaking extravaganza I was led to believe, it’s still a remarkably solid and imaginative game. It falls flat on its face as an example of horror, but provides exceptionally solid and intense combat sequences with a few moments of real brilliance, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself. It’s certainly worth experiencing, especially if you enjoyed the first game, and with numerous suits and weapons up for grabs via New Game+ and the tougher difficulty settings, there are certainly worse ways of spending your money.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (Single Player)

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Did you skip the Black Ops single player? You did, didn’t you? Come on, admit it. You went straight onto the multiplayer and started working your way up to Prestige. Maybe you played some Zombies with a couple of friends. But you didn’t play the campaign did you? Oh no, single player isn’t relevant in Call of Duty is it?

Well actually yes, it is. I wrote on Twitter recently [different Twitter account, the tweets don’t exist anymore] that I thought the campaign portion of Black Ops was the strongest in the series (naturally excluding Call of Duty 4), and I stand by that statement. Yet, it still seems to be largely discredited by the masses. I’ve heard a couple of comments lately from people I respect who didn’t seem to be having as much fun as I was. So, in the interest of trying to qualify my outlandish claims, I thought it might be useful to examine the issue in more depth.

My good friend and fellow blogger Daniel Hart expressed his concerns when playing the game, and he made a valid point. His problem was that the game took control away from the player far too frequently. It’s a very common belief that when the interactivity of a video game is removed the immersion is dragged away with it, and this is an opinion that I typically subscribe to.

The general consensus is that the campaign plays it a little too ‘safe’. It doesn’t offer anything new or develop the tried-and-tested formula in any meaningful way. It certainly doesn’t provide a gameplay experience we haven’t seen before. Then again, the level of refinement is admirable, and I can’t help but use the term I really hate to use when describing video games, and that’s ‘cinematic’.

The main draw of blockbuster action movies is that they provide a comfortable feeling of escapism, exploring the typical ideas of power, wealth, popularity and attractiveness that are synonymous with mainstream action heroes, then letting the viewer (albeit temporarily) assume ownership of that role. Video games take it one step further by allowing the player to have a measurable impact on what they’re watching; feeling and seeing immediate repercussions of their choices and actions, which is what people in the business call agency.

Black Ops really does have that whole action movie vibe going on. By assuming the role of a combatant, you accept the natural associations of danger, courage and selfless heroism that go with it. Taking control out of your hands every now and again to let your character get knocked back by an explosion or strangled by a Vietcong does something that aids in the credibility of the illusion: it reinforces the idea that you’re not in control; that in the grand scheme of global conflict you’re insignificant and powerless, and that warrants a far greater emotional investment than, say, Medal of Honor.

As I said earlier in this post, nothing about Black Ops feels fresh or original, but that’s half the appeal. It’s iterative; unconcerned with radicalizing the genre or advancing the gameplay of the previous titles in the series, but rather fully-focused on enhancing the high-octane experience it knows it can provide.

Most missions in the game are simple flashbacks being narrated by the protagonist and the whole thing is little more than a narrative framing device; an excuse to take the player to lots of locations and time periods on varied styles of mission. The plot is solid to enough to encourage questions of the “who, what, where, why” variety, though it’s importance is questionable. The real focus here is the missions themselves.

Treyarch wanted to craft a campaign that was interesting, varied and accessible. Something people could jump in to and enjoy without the weight of moral choice, role playing or alternate endings, and they did that with commendable style and vigour. Multiplayer is, and probably always will be, the primary selling point of the franchise, but at least give the single player a chance. You never know, you might even like it.

Bulletstorm

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However you feel about Bulletstorm, whether you were put off by its outlandish marketing campaign or dismayed by the possibility that it may encourage you to commit rape, one thing you can’t say is that it slipped under your radar.

It didn’t, and I know that. While it may have attracted your attention for the wrong reasons, you noticed it nonetheless. How you feel about its advertising, its juvenile attitude or it’s glorifying of uber-violence is inconsequential, because Bulletstorm was one of the highest-profile releases of 2011, and that isn’t going to change.

So, have you played it?

I have. I got my copy the day before release and played through the entire campaign in a single sitting. While I wasn’t keeping time, I’d say it took about 8 hours to progress from the outrageous opening to the explosive finale, and I loved every minute. I think I’m in a position now to share my thoughts on why.

Let’s just get the obvious stuff out of the way: Bulletstorm isn’t for everyone. It does seem to revel in its over-the-top violence, creative concoctions of profanity and ludicrously-titled Skillshots. While I bang the “games as art” drum more than most, if I was asked to cite an example of gaming’s potential as a unique form of artistic expression, I’d stay as far away from this as possible.

Likewise, you won’t find anything resembling a deep and complex narrative here. Bulletstorm’s plot is about as trashy as pulp science-fiction tales get, but in a way, that’s more to the game’s credit than you might think. Rick Remender, the writing talent behind this miasma of puns and innuendo, has done a deceptively wonderful job crafting characters, set-pieces and dialogue that all somehow fit in with his idiotic universe, often poking fun at his own creation in a way that only the most talented of folks can do successfully.

The star of this particular show is Grayson Hunt (well-voiced by Steve Blum); a space pirate with a drinking problem who’s out for revenge on the commanding officer of his former black-ops unit, General Sarrano. After attacking the General’s giant battleship in a liquor-induced frenzy, Gray and his team of mates (including soon-to-be cyborg Ishi Sato, who joins him for most of the game) crash land on the planet Stygia, a former holiday resort that’s now overrun with mutants, gangs, carnivorous plants and the rest of Sarrano’s team, who were also forced to land on the planet after the attack. I mentioned this was trashy, right?

What follows, however, is a gleefully goofy journey through one of the most beautiful game worlds I have ever seen. Every area of Stygia is a wonderfully-designed, visually-stunning playground, crammed with things to see and tools to use as you carve your way through the swathes of bad guys in the most brutal and stylish ways possible. Whether you’re stalking your way through the planet’s cavernous underbelly or exploring the ruined, adult paradise of Elysium, you never run out of eye candy or new toys to play with. Boredom never has a chance to rear its ugly head – by the time you’ve just about got to grips with a new environment’s particular quirks, you’re dragged kicking and screaming somewhere else, usually with a Godzilla-like monster hot on your heels.

Thankfully, the gameplay holding all this carnage together is virtually flawless. The controls are about as tight as one would expect from a shooter developed by Epic Games and Polish studio People Can Fly, who have titles such as Unreal, Gears of War and Painkiller under their belts. What sets Bulletstorm apart from (and possibly elevates it above) its rivals is the Skillshot system, incidentally the source of the most heated controversy.

For those not in the know, this system works thusly: players are rewarded for killing enemies in especially creative, violent ways, and there are 135 different “Skillshots” to be unlocked, each one having its own name (usually a sexual innuendo or a pun) and point value based on how complex it was to earn. There are rather obvious ones, such as “Enviro-Mental”, for killing an enemy using an environmental explosive such as a barrel, and more controversial examples such as “Gangbang” (killing multiple enemies with a Flail Gun explosion) and “Drilldo” (sliding into multiple enemies with a charged Penetrator), the latter of which were, coincidentally, the ones FOX News had problems with.

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Skillshots aren’t just a gimmick, though – they completely define how you play the game. Traditional systems and strategies must be thrown out of the window to succeed in Bulletstorm; playing it safe, hiding behind cover and popping out to fire a short burst at a target’s head will get you through the game, but it won’t get you a high score or provide much satisfaction. It’s difficult to justify earning 25 points for a “Headshot” when you can blow an enemy’s torso clean off with the ludicrously-awesome quadruple-barrelled shotgun and earn the “Topless” skillshot, worth exactly the same amount of points. Which sounds more fun to you?

Going out of your way to unlock new Skillshots also has a more practical application though, because the points you earn from your murders are used to buy ammunition and upgrade your weapons. If you’re content with the starting assault rifle then that’s fine, but if you want access to the pneumatic drill weapon or the thing that fires bouncing yellow bombs, then you’re going to have to get more creative with your kills. There’s a tremendous amount of depth in the system that constantly rewards experimentation and risk-taking, and the limited time I spent with the multiplayer was greatly enhanced by discovering Skillshots which could only be performed with two or more people.

The only criticism I could level at the whole thing is that it occasionally feels a bit rigid, with the most impressive combos coming either by chance, or by adhering strictly to the blood-soaked rulebook. It isn’t always as natural as I would have liked it to be, with certain techniques being perplexingly more rewarding than others, but overall these are minor complaints that don’t really taint the system as a whole.

For the record, I played on the Hard setting, which for me perfectly balanced enemy difficulty with room for experimentation. It wasn’t tough to beat, but it was a lot more thrilling pulling off some interesting kill-chains when dealing with a more genuine threat, so I’d recommend that setting even if you’re not familiar with the game. Save Very Hard for the real challenge.

Bulletstorm is the most fun I’ve had with a FPS in recent memory. While its presentation and style may be off-putting for some, if you take the time to peel back the layers of guts, gore and profanity you’ll find a tight, well-made shooter with genuinely intelligent design pinning things together. Perhaps most importantly, it didn’t inspire me to rape anyone either.

Black

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[This is a review I wrote several years ago, experimenting with a different style. Yes, I know that it really isn’t very good and no, I’m not particularly proud of it. I include it here only for the sake of variety.]

Every now and again a developer has the brave idea of going back to the basics; creating a game based purely on what enticed players into that particular genre in the first place. It’s a risky move, and with technology always supposed to be moving forwards, how is a game like this, a straightforward FPS with no mission objectives that deviate from shooting things and blowing things up, going to be received by the public?

This is Black, the game that focuses on the best part of a shooter — shooting. Does its limited gameplay hinder it? Let’s see.

Things I Liked

The Visual Design:

I get the feeling that the aim with Black was to give people an opportunity to see how it really feels to fire a weapon. Although that seems like a ridiculous statement (how can a videogame give a comparable experience to using a firearm in real life?) this game doesn’t half try it’s best to do just that. Everything in the game is lavished with detail, the weaponry in particular. Muzzle flashes are suitably blinding, the working parts of the weapon rattle back and forth as the breach ejects spent cartridges, changing fire modes lets you see the selector switch being moved back and forth, and when you run a magazine clean of its rounds you are treated to a wonderfully detailed reload animation, complete with background blurring to further add focus to the new mag being slammed home and the gun being cocked, ready for more action. Bullets ricochet off walls and body armour with flying sparks, explosions bring up showers of dirt and concrete and human bodies, and some of the bigger weapons can smash walls into tiny chunks.

The Sound Design:

Every time you fire a weapon you are treated to roaring audio feedback, specific to each weapon. When you unload with a SPAS-12 automatic shotgun, each round is released with a roar like thunder, and when you drop someone with a few bursts from a silenced MP-5 SMG, the working parts click and rattle while the bullets leave the barrel with that familiar dull thud, like a cork being popped from a bottle. Amid all the chaos, enemy voices creep over to your ears, shouting vague tactical commands and cursing you’re very existence as you plough through their ranks. It all sounds pretty awesome.

The Weaponry:

Black doesn’t have the biggest range of guns to choose from, and like most FPSs these days you can only carry two at a time. But the great thing about this game is that every weapon has a use, and in the right situation functions superbly. We have the usual array of pistols, shotguns, SMGs and assault rifles, but every weapon feels deadly in your hands, just like it should. However, the fun really starts when you pick up something with a real kick to it, like the RPG, M79 grenade launcher or M249 Light Machine Gun, which fires bullets of such large calibre at such a high speed you can actually see it ripping riot shields apart, piece by piece. The player can also toss grenades into groups of enemies or fortified emplacements, and for once they feel how they should feel, with a nice amount of splash damage and destructive capabilities.

Things I Didn’t Like

Lifespan:

Black is only a short game, and even though you can go back and play the campaign through on a new difficulty setting, there isn’t much motivation to do so, other than unlocking silver versions of your weapons, which come with unlimited ammunition. It’s also fairly easy to complete, with my save clocking in at around 5 hours. It benefits from not having a multiplayer mode, something that most games feel is vital these days, but the campaign could easily have been extended by a couple of missions to flesh things out.

The AI:

I can’t say the enemies in this game are particularly smart — actually, they’re pretty stupid. Most enemies run blindly towards you, and rarely use cover or any tactical manoeuvres such as flanking. I get the impression that this is semi-intentional, a device used to always make sure there are people ready for you to shoot, but personally I think that it feels less engaging to combat a large amount of brainless enemies than a smaller amount of really clever ones.

* * *

I could talk about the plot, but in Black the storyline is just an excuse to send you out into the world with lots of guns. I doubt anyone who plays this game is going to be particularly concerned about the narrative, which is good because it’s pretty hard to decipher anyway. At least it does leave things open for a sequel, and Criterion really should get around to making that game — it blows my mind to think how this game would run on a seventh generation machine.

Overall, I can heartily recommend Black as one of the best shooters available in the sixth console generation. If you’re looking for a complex and imaginative FPS you’re not going to find it here, but if you want a game to remind you of what pure, simple fun can be found in blowing things up, then look no further than Black.

This game is backwards-compatible with the Xbox 360 and can be downloaded straight from the Xbox Live Marketplace for £19.99 [it will probably be much less than this now], although I would recommend finding a used copy somewhere for cheaper.