Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops The Line

I didn’t like Spec Ops: The Line until it ended.

That’s a feeling I’ve had about many video games; the almost palpable relief when the closing credits begin to roll and I know that another bad experience is over. Sometimes, in moments like that, I light up a cigarette and just watch the names scroll by through the haze of the smoke, silently curious about why these people thought to create the game they did, and secure in the knowledge that I’ll never have to touch it again.

It wasn’t quite like that with The Line. This time, as the assorted names of the Yager Development team rolled upwards and disappeared off the top of my television, I sat in a stunned, almost comatose silence and thought about everything that had led me to that point. I thought about life and death, about war and peace, about right and wrong. I thought about a lot of things, sat there in that chair. Then, when the names had all but disappeared and the final chords of Jimi Hendrix’s “A Merman I Should Be” rang out with an almost beautiful finality, I realized it wasn’t quite over yet.

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Saw: The Video Game


After writing about Saw: The Video Game in an earlier post, I realised that I may have given people the wrong impression. Yes, the game does a good job of creating an unsettling atmosphere and yes, at times it is quite clever. But trust me; they’re the only positive aspects of the whole thing. In the interest of properly establishing my opinion on the game, here are some reasons why it’s shit:

Repetitive, unimaginative puzzles. Primarily, bigger and more difficult versions of the same two puzzles repeated ad nauseum throughout the entirety of the game. The first is a simple circuit puzzle which involves directing electricity from a source point to several nodes, and the second requires a selection of pipes to be rotated until they fit together. There are others, but they usually only crop up once or twice in specific scenarios, so Konami rejected more of them on the grounds that they were too much like puzzles that made sense and were enjoyable to solve.

Barely visible, instant-death traps. Tension is a good thing in a horror game, and creeping slowly through the environment is generally quite a natural thing to do, especially considering your lighter extinguishes itself if you move too fast. However, when you’re being chased by a lunatic swinging around a baseball bat with nails through the end, rounding a corner at high speed and having your head blown off by an almost invisible wall-mounted shotgun is a little bit harsh.

Combat. Oh, the combat. Perhaps the worst combat in any game I’ve ever played in almost two decades of gaming. Swinging a length of piping takes roughly ten minutes, and usually five minutes in the enemy clubs you over the head with something and cancels the animation. The best course of action is generally to just spam the game-breaking uppercut move and give all the weapons a wide berth.

To be honest, the game starts off really well. Detective Tapp (the player-character), is stuck in the familiar Reverse Bear Trap which will bisect his head in just 60 seconds if the player doesn’t quickly complete the required quick-time event. It’s not particularly difficult but it’s a tense, very immediate opening which really catches the vibe of the films.

After managing to free himself of the trap with just a few seconds to spare, Tapp finds he’s stuck in a bathroom and can only unlock the door with a specific code. Where is this mysterious code? Nowhere to be seen, but on closer inspection he realises that if he closes all the cubicle doors and then looks in the mirror, there are three numbers painted in bright red letters on the doors. Ah, very clever. Then, after escaping the bathroom, everything goes rapidly downhill.

Look, the first time I had to stuff my hand in a toilet full of used syringes, it was pretty cool. After the sixth time, not so much. And don’t even get me started on the barrel full of acid which I was forced to delve into despite the fact that there was a convenient drain on the floor right next to the fucking thing. Saw is full of moments like this, and it’s a shame that the great atmosphere and occasional good idea are spoiled by simply terrible design decisions.

So Jigsaw, no, I wouldn’t like to play a game. Perhaps if the development team put some thought into the design and actually used the wealth of good ideas that the movies provided them with, I might have held out some hope for other games in the franchise. As it is, your games can all go for a swim in that big vat of liquidised pigs, and as far as I’m concerned so can you, you miserable old cunt.

Some Thoughts On Atmosphere

So I’m sidling my way through a series of rusted, steam-spewing pipes when I come to a little hole in the wall. If I stand still I can peer through and see the dangling remains of what I assume was a human being; as well as a huge, blood-stained mechanical behemoth, and a flickering clock on the wall painting the numerals 00:00 on the gloom.

Feeling a little disturbed, I press on and squeeze out of the pipes into absolute, sheer darkness. There’s a steady little bleep as the shotgun-collar around my neck lets me know that somewhere in the impenetrable void ahead there’s an enemy I can’t see waiting to bludgeon me to death. Fumbling for my lighter, I manage to bathe a two-foot circle around me in warm, flickering light, just as the hidden psychopath springs from the shadows with a desperate wail, a blood-stained lump of piping raised above his head.

This is Saw: The Video Gamea shining example of a bad game made moderately playable because of its atmosphere – and, while it’s quite frankly broken in parts, I can’t help but enjoy it thanks to moments like the one described above. Yes, a good game can be let down by a lack of atmosphere, but it’s worth remembering that games with a lot of flaws can be forgiven for a number of them if the player is presented with a world that really draws them in.

There’s a scene in Kane & Lynch: Dead Men set in a crowded Tokyo nightclub that has the hapless duo kidnapping the daughter of a Japanese crime lord and carrying her unconscious body across the club. Its packed wall-to-wall with people, the music is loud enough to be disorienting and the strobe lighting obscures the flashlights of the guards and blurs the line between enemy and innocent bystander. The scene overall is a tense, frenetic gangfuck that left me feeling drained and exhilarated in equal measures, which almost made up for almost everything else about the game being spectacularly bad.

When I play a game, I want to feel as though I’m involved. I want to invest actual emotions in the characters and the world, and as a result I want to be affected by all of the conflict and drama. If you imagine gameplay and narrative as the two slices of bread in a sandwich, then atmosphere is the filling that holds everything together, if you see what I mean. Without a good atmosphere the player is constantly reminded that they’re actually just pressing buttons, and nothing is more damaging to immersion than that.

I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion because despite its technical prowess it just didn’t draw me in and hold my attention. Yes, the world was huge, but it was visually uninteresting. Every new bit of terrain felt exactly like the last, which soon turned navigating into a chore. To make matters worse, whenever I came across a character I could interact with they stood there with a vacant expression muttering the same lines of badly-written dialogue again and again. As my girlfriend keeps assuring me, size doesn’t matter, and I’d much rather have a smaller, deeper world populated with relatable and interesting characters than a sprawling map that’s shallower than a dinner plate.

Atmosphere isn’t just about how a game looks and sounds, although that’s certainly important. What it really comes down to are the details, more often than not small things which you barely notice but nonetheless have a profound impact on your experience.

Consider Bioshocka game with an atmosphere so thick that you can feel it draped over your shoulders. Every aspect of Rapture gels seamlessly together to create a truly believable dystopia: a once-prosperous civilization gone terribly awry. It feels real, alive, and when you’re within that world you feel as though you’re a part of it. There’s nothing in there that is trying overtly to make you feel a particular emotion; no cheap gimmicks or parlour tricks. You’re scared, or empathetic, or angry, or betrayed, simply because you believe in the world and the characters that populate it. Atmosphere creates that kind of emotional investment all on its own.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (perhaps as a result of writing fiction), and it’s a topic I’m definitely going to cover in more depth in the near future. For now, feel free to list other examples of bad games with great atmosphere (or vice versa) in the comments. Maybe we can get a discussion going or some shit.

5 Steps To Enjoying Mortal Kombat

[Note: When I first published this piece shortly after the release of Mortal Kombat, it somehow found its way onto N4G and caused a lot of people to cry their eyes out because I wasn’t sucking Sub-Zero’s cock. Look, this is sarcastic – I like Mortal Kombat a lot, and primarily because it’s a fun game without feeling the need to be an artistic statement or a commentary on something. It’s just fun because smacking ninjas around is fun and sometimes that’s all we need.]

Mortal Kombat 9

In order to enjoy Mortal Kombat 9 (or should I say Mortal Kombat, because this iteration of the series has the exact same title as the original for no adequately explained reason) there are certain preparatory steps you need to undertake before you commit to it.

In the interest of providing people with a fair starting point, I thought it would be useful to construct this handy step-by-step tutorial in order to give people some idea of the sacrifices they’re going to need to make in order to have fun with what is, at its heart, a very solid fighting game.

So, without further ado:

Step 1 – Forget about the potential of videogames as a storytelling medium.

Narrative has no place in Mortal Kombat, and if you go into the “Story Mode” expecting a moving, character-driven tale of drama, suspense and konflict, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If it makes you feel better, imagine each fight as its own little narrative, and make up all the backstory in your imagination.

Step 2 – Don’t concern yourself about the objectification of women in videogames.

Seriously, you’re asking for trouble. Before you load the game up (shit, before you even look at the back of the box) tell yourself over and over that every female character in this game is going to have huge breasts, a tiny waist, an exposed midriff and very little clothing. Keep repeating that until you’re comfortable with the idea before you even think about getting started. If you want a deep and relatable female protagonist, play Beyond Good & Evil. Kitana just fucks things up.

Step 3 – Convince yourself that extreme violence is cathartic.

This is very important. Mortal Kombat is violent to a degree that borders on fetishistic. You need to understand that the X-Ray attacks are going to zoom in and show one or more bones being twisted and bent and then splintering into little bits. There’s going to be lots of blood. Also, be sure to ascertain your comfort with the violence absolutely and completely before you go anywhere near Noob Saibot’s fatality.

Step 4 – For the purposes of this exercise, games are not art.

Thinking about video games as a new and exciting form of artistic expression is a really, really bad idea when you’re playing Mortal Kombat. For the duration of your play session, you need to be prepared to forget about this notion. No, Roger Ebert isn’t going to be changing his position on “games as art” after playing this game, but Rog hasn’t unlocked all the items in the Krypt, has he? Also, please refrain from commenting on how the violence is an allegory for the primal savagery of the human race, because it isn’t.

Step 5 – Repeat after me: “Shao Kahn will kick my arse”.

This could be the most important step of all. Before you touch Story Mode, before you go near the Arcade Ladder, you need to be well and truly aware of the fact that the first time you fight Shao Kahn, it will be a disaster. He will annihilate you and you will question whether or not he can be beaten at all. It’s OK. This is normal. You will get there in the end. It also helps if you keep your distance, duck underneath his spears and spam ranged attacks.

So there you have it. Hopefully, by following this guide to the letter, you will have mentally and physically prepared yourself for Mortal Kombat 9. These are all mistakes I made personally, and I’m doing you a great service by preventing you from having to suffer like I did.

The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Special Edition

The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition 2

Look, even if you’d rather boil your own head than play a 90′s-style point-and-click adventure game, The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge Special Edition is still well worth your money. Here’s why: remember in my post about the previous game, I talked about the terrific trio of Dave Grossman, Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer? Well for this version they’ve got together for a director’s commentary-style feature that you can listen to while you play the game. It’s full of hilarious insider knowledge and it’s a great privilege to hear these three revolutionary designers have a little chit-chat, so get your money out and buy this, alright?

I could leave this piece there and just knock off for dinner, but I wouldn’t be the hard-hitting professional that I like to think I am without talking about the actual game aspect of the, well, game. So, without further ado, here are some more reasons to buy TSOMI2: LCRSE, which will hereby be referred to as Monkey Island 2 for the sake of brevity.

Primarily, it’s still just as funny and inventive as the first game, and if you don’t mind having your brain tickled and then gently massaged in creative comedy then there’s really nothing to dislike, at least if you play with the original controls. Speaking of which, the option is still there to revert back to the graphics and sound of the original game, with the added bonus of being able to listen to the (again, very good) voice acting while in the old view.

So far, so good. All in all, the package feels a lot fuller, which is nice. There’s unlockable concept art which gives you an insight into the various stages of the development process, a revision to the hint system which highlights objects you should be interacting with, and you can now move Guybrush around with the analogue stick. Oh, wait, I think I see the problems coming over the horizon.

Analogue control in a game like this just doesn’t feel natural, and while Mr Threepwood is a dab hand at insult swordfighting (which isn’t actually present in this game, unfortunately), womanising and battling ghost pirates, he hasn’t quite got to grips with walking around. He often gets stuck behind objects or walks in a slightly different direction than the one intended, and that’s a fairly serious issue here. At the end of the day, no method of control will ever be as precise as pointing and clicking, and the attempts to modernise the game in this regard fall a bit flat. Thankfully, though, you’re only one button press away from how the game should be played, so it’s fine.

Perhaps it isn’t my place to say that any game should be played in a specific way. Hey, if you want to play using the new control system, that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but personally, I can’t see how anyone would prefer not having the accessibility of the original format. Although in reflection possibly because it looks like someone’s drawn rough notes all over half of the screen.

Chances are you already know whether or not you like this game. If you played it when it was first released and you’re looking for a reason to fork out more cash for it, the director’s commentary is probably the major reason to do so. Again, the core design is fundamentally the same, but it’s still as witty and charming as ever, plus you get the added bonus of hearing Tim Schafer’s tender voice lovingly caressing your ear drums like warm honey and — whoops, got carried away again.

It also looks quite nice, so there’s a recommendation if I ever heard one.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition

I’m always shamefully quick to admit that I missed out on the reign of LucasArts and the adventure genre that was pretty much the face of PC gaming in the 90s. Apparently this was a time of well-made, intelligent and humorous endeavors like Grim FandangoDay of the Tentacle and of course The Secret of Monkey Island, long before the company totally abandoned ingenuity and originality in favour of milking every last drop of profit from the Star Wars franchise.

Fortunately, with the high-definition remastering of TSOMI and the wonders of Xbox Live Arcade, Steam and Playstation Storemyself and many people like me now have the opportunity to experience these by-gone days of gaming without having to load up DOSBox.

So how does a twenty year-old game hold up today? Well that depends on who you are, and what you’re looking for in a £10 product. The only “special” parts of this Special Edition are the aforementioned glossy HD makeover and some above-average voice acting, neither of which are particularly deal breakers if you’re not into the genre. What’s important here is the gameplay, and that’s still the traditional point-and-click adventure most people played in 1990 – nothing gained, nothing lost. My worry is simple: will the vast majority of modern gamers consider that to be enough?

For those not in the know, The Secret of Monkey Island tells the tale of Guybrush Threepwood, a curiously soft-spoken and polite young man who yearns above all things to be a pirate. Players guide him around the world by clicking where they want him to go, who they want him to talk to and how they want him to use various random items in increasingly illogical ways. It’s true that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but the problem with that is people are no longer familiar with weird adventure game logic. Puzzles should be difficult, but there’s a very fine line between reasonable experimentation and simple trial-and-error. In this particular genre, that line is all too often remarkably blurry.

Puzzles in Monkey Island are of the “use item x with item y” variety, but the vast majority of the solutions are spectacularly esoteric. Upon close inspection they do (sometimes) make a modicum of sense, but more often than not it would make considerably more sense to use one of the four or five other, more appropriate items that you’re carrying around. Of course this comes with the territory, but it takes some getting used to if you’re not already accustomed to it, and it’s easy to imagine less patient players than myself getting bored and giving up. Truth be told, there is a hint system in this edition, but for people who like this kind of thing using it would pretty much be considered sacrilege.

Regardless of its age, TSOMI is phenomenally well-written, and it’s always worth taking the time out to decipher the puzzles just to see what wonderfully charming and hilarious thing the characters will do or say next. Credit goes to the all-star tag team of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who later went on to lead the development of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge. 

I’ve got to recommend TSOMI, whether you have played an adventure game or not. No, you may not be utterly taken with how it all works, but I challenge anyone not to appreciate the originality, intelligence, humour and charm here. If you’re new to the adventure genre, like I was, this is the perfect starting point. If you loved the game in 1990, you’ll love it now. It’s a little bit like slipping on an old pair of slippers; they’re just as warm, comfortable and welcoming as ever – just remember that someone’s drawn all over them with a felt-tip pen.

James Bond 007: From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love

It’s pretty obvious from the outset what the main selling point of From Russia With Love is, and it’s not the usual girls, gadgets and explosions that are the main focus in most James Bond games. Although all of these things are present and correct, the element that makes this edition into the ever-lengthening 007 franchise so appealing to fans is that old Scottish front-man, Sean Connery.

Does the presence of Sir Sean elevate this game above its predecessors? Let’s find out.

I Loved:

Sir Sean: Most true Bond fans will probably tell you that their favourite actor to portray everyone’s beloved vodka-swilling, womanizing spy is Sean Connery, and as such his being in the game was always going to be a well-received addition. Personally, I thought his physical reconstruction and mannerisms were both top-notch, even down to his trademark shooting from the hip. EA did well to recreate that classic feel of the FRWL movie, and Sir Sean being in the driving seat really helps to bring that nostalgic presentation together.

Close-Combat: I’ve always thought that Bond (especially the early Bond) isn’t particularly talented at hand-to-hand combat — most of the time he’s getting his arse handed to him. In this game, however, he does have access to some pretty nifty attacks when enemies get too close for comfort. A few of the game’s areas are engineered to specifically suit stealth play, and it is definitely satisfying to creep up behind a bad guy and grab him in a silent chokehold. There is also a handy feature for quickly dispatching close-range enemies: when Bond is in pistol-whip range, pressing the fire button will give the enemy a smack and then one of the four face buttons will pop up on screen. If you hit the correct button at the correct time then that enemy will get the good news with a James Bond special and won’t be troubling you for much longer. It’s not the most advanced of gameplay elements, but it helps to break up the action and some of the moves are fun to watch Sean Connery perform.

Gadgets: A lot of the time in Bond games the gadgets can be overlooked, and although that is the case here in some respects, a couple of the toys are pretty decent. The Q-Copter for one is a nice inclusion; it’s basically a remote-controlled helicopter which allows Bond to reconnoitre areas, but it can also be used as a weapon when it detonates. There is also the inclusion of a rappel device, but it’s more of a hook on a rope than the modern, more versatile version seen in Everything or Nothing. In FRWL it’s used more as a method of getting from Point A to Point B, but it’s always entertaining to swing through a window and come crashing down on an enemy’s head.

Vehicle Sections: This being a third person shooter (and, more appropriately, a Bond game) vehicle sections were always going to be involved. Usually for me this kind of thing feels slightly forced, but in this game the various vehicles on offer add variety to the gameplay as well as provide an exciting, visceral few moments of speed. Even the controls are nice and tight, which is unusual but definitely a bonus. In FRWL Bond gets to drive a car, a boat and commandeer a jetpack, all of which come complete with a lovely selection of ordnance to blow away everything else that gets anywhere near.

The Audio: If the game handles one thing really, really well then it has to be the audio. Aside from Bond himself being a little unenthusiastic, the other characters are really well-voiced and aid to the credibility of the game world. Similarly, the sound effects are great, with lots of realistic explosions and gunfire. Aside from some occasional balancing issues, the audio is probably the most standout feature of the game for me.

I Hated:

Sir Sean: Although as I’ve already mentioned the presence of the good knight is a blessing at times, it can also be a tad irritating. Sean Connery is an old man now and Christ doesn’t he sound like one — most of the time his lines sound like something granddad would say in front of the mirror. He still delivers his most iconic catchphrases with some personality, but these don’t come often enough to convince the player that we have a younger, fitter Sean running around on screen. As much of a legend as Sean Connery is, it doesn’t befit an action game to have the lines of the protagonist delivered by a geriatric.

The Difficulty: Most of the time FRWL feels like a training mission. Even on the hardest difficulty, there is very little challenge here. It’s so easy to just hold down lock-on and hammer the fire button that everything else seems a little pointless. You could slow down time and shoot a grenade out of someone’s hand, but why bother when you can jog up to him and smack him around twice as fast? Even if an enemy manages to invade your personal space, he’s only a couple of button presses away from an instant kill. In Everything or Nothing you weren’t particularly challenged, but that was to maintain the modern action-movie style and keep things fluid — in comparison, FRWL feels a little stale.

The Storyline: If you’re a fan of the film you might be disappointed in some parts with this game, seeing as a good portion of the plot is missing or has been changed in some way. Even the introduction to the game is tacked on and bears pretty much no relevance to the storyline, and the same can be said of the closing scenes. Even the scene from the movie where Bond must dodge an attacking helicopter is conspicuously absent from the game, and the train scene, perhaps one of the movie’s most memorable moments, has been completely changed. Some familiar scenarios are still present, such as the shootout at the gypsy camp and the daring heist in the Russian consulate, but they are too few and far between to maintain a real feel of the film. Note to developers who want to translate a movie to a game: sticking to the bare bones of the plot and skipping or altering some of the better parts is NOT a good idea.

The Multiplayer: FRWL is one of those games that feels it simply must include a multiplayer component, however under-developed and generally shite it is. All the usual suspects are there — deathmatch, a variant on capture the flag, even a mode in which every player has a jetpack. But as is the nature of these things, it all plays out the same; hold down lock-on and hammer the fire button until someone falls over. It doesn’t have the tactical elements of decent multiplayer titles, the maps are unimaginative and this kind of gameplay just doesn’t translate all that well when playing against actual human opponents. In my opinion, the multiplayer shouldn’t have been present.

So there you have it — a reasonably fun if unremarkable TPS. FRWL doesn’t do anything different and what it does do isn’t the best in the genre by a long way, but it’s functional enough to provide an entertaining experience while it lasts, which thankfully isn’t long.