Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Halo 4 for Xbox 360

I really, really didn’t envy 343. There are few franchises with as fanatic a fan base as Halo, and the departure of the beloved Bungie from the series to work on the interesting sounding Destiny meant that whoever picked up the mantle had big shoes to fill. To be fair, 343 was established with the express purpose of making more Halo games, but it’s fair to say that if Halo 4 had been a failure the fan base would not have been forgiving. Thankfully for 343, Halo 4 is most certainly not a failure, and is arguably in fact one of the strongest instalments in the franchise.

Halo 4 is the first of the new ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’, picking up over four years after the conclusion of Halo 3, which saw Master Chief placed in stasis upon the Forward Under Dawn, drifting towards a planet of clearly Forerunner origin. The planet is Requiem, and here Master Chief discovers a threat which potentially eclipses even that of the Flood or the Covenant. Master Chief inadvertently frees an ancient and antagonistic Forerunner entity known as The Didact, who brings with him an army of strange ‘Prometheans’, as well as a squadron of rogue Covenant who did not make peace with humanity at the end of Halo 3. Alongside the grand space opera, a much more personal tale unfolds as Cortana, the loyal AI who has never been far from Master Chief’s side, begins to enter ‘Rampancy’, a disintegration of the sanity of any AI which exists for longer than seven years.

The Halo games have always had an excellent sense of place to their settings. When compared to, say, Gears of War’s Sera, Halo’s planets are always bursting with personality. That said, Requiem sometimes feels like a ‘greatest hits’ collection of previous game’s locales rather than a coherent location in of itself, although I hold the unpopular opinion that Halo 3: ODST’s  New Mombassa was the best Halo setting. Requiem is, due to the impressive stretching of the Xbox 360’s abilities, the most beautiful setting thus far seen in the Halo franchise, but it also isn’t particularly visually imaginative, with the design veering rather towards the conservative. Now, I can absolutely see why 343 did this; in many ways, Halo 4 is a declaration of intent, a message to fans saying ‘guys, we know Halo, we love Halo, we’re going to make great Halo games and you can trust us.’ This game contains plenty of little homages to previous games in the series, with Requiem itself being the most clear. So, what I’m basically saying is that I liked Requiem as a setting, but I really hope that 343 take some risks for Halos 5 & 6 and give us settings which feel totally new and special, just as Bungie did in Halo: Combat Evolved all those years ago.

Alas, the actual plot of Halo 4 is something of a mess. Supplementary novels, comics or short films for major game franchises are part and parcel of the industry these days, and I really don’t have a problem with this. Franchises such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed have substantial supporting materials, but the actual game plots function just fine without them. Sure, the appearance of Kahlee Sanders is Mass Effect 3 after her starring role in a couple of novel was a lovely little reward for loyal fans, but it was far from necessary to understand what was going on. These supporting materials have to be just that, supporting, and it is a failure to adhere to this that causes the biggest issues in the narrative of Halo 4. Vital figures such as the villainous Didact and the benevolent Librarian are barely explained, and I only came to understand what these characters were actually about through reading up on the Halo Wiki. If the actual game itself doesn’t contain enough information to explain what’s going on, that game narrative fails. There are hidden videos scattered throughout the game in Terminals which fill in some of the information, but this information is vital, not the sort of thing that should be withheld from the player. It’s a shame, because after reading up on the Halo universe it became clear they’re actually telling a really cool and interesting sci-fi story, but they’re just not telling it very well.

Halo 4 plays like, well, Halo, and that’s most certainly not a bad thing. When I first booted up Halo 4 I found myself slipping into the COD controls which have become the FPS standard, preparing to snap up my iron sights, before remembering that I don’t have iron sights. Halo is a subtly different beast to the other major FPS games out there, and nothing controls quite like it. Oh, and those floaty jumps. Those floaty jumps. I could write a dissertation on how much I love Halo’s floaty jumps. Halo plays as brilliantly as always, with the raft of new weapons spicing things up. The traditional UNSC and Covenant weapons are joined by Promethean firearms, and although these are fun and cool it’s very easy to view them simply through the lens of how they relate to the more standard weapons; the Suppressor is the Assault Rifle, the Lightrifle is the DMR, the Scattershot is the Shotgun etc. The addition of the Mantis, a huge mech is as welcome as mechs always are. The single player campaign is a decent length, with value added by the typically excellent and compelling online multiplayer, as well as the Spartan Ops Missions (which I’ll be reviewing separately ). In Halo 4, you get a lot of bang for your buck.

Halo 4 is an incredible looking game; I really don’t think that the Xbox 360 can do better than this, but when we look at the graphical leap from Halo 3 through to Reach and finally to Halo 4 it’s staggering how much power has been drawn out of this device. The environments are incredibly gorgeous and detailed, with the one downside of this beauty being that the more intricately designed the level, the more linear the path. For example, the jungle level is lovely to look at but disappointingly linear to play, whereas the more sparse desert offers the open approach to gameplay which makes the Halo campaigns so fun. Sometimes in Halo 4 you just want to stop and appreciate the spectacle. One aspect of the game which particularly impressed me were the character animations, both in the body and the face. I haven’t seen such believable and nuanced faces in a game since LA Noire, and they move in a smooth and human manner. The voice acting for these characters matches the quality of their models, with particular praise earnt by Jen Taylor for another wonderful turn as Cortana. New UNSC figures and Spartans are also voiced excellently, but I’ll cover this bunch in my Spartan Ops review, in which these characters play a much bigger role.

Halo 4 is an excellent first release from 343, and a triumphant assertion that they can comfortably handle this beloved franchise. That said, it’s hard not to feel that Halo 4 is playing slightly too safe, and I really hope that Halo 5 takes a few more risks and allows 343 to really grow into their own and to try to get across their own creative vision, rather than simply attempt to imitate Bungie. I’ll be very interested to see how Bungie’s highly intriguing Destiny stands against Halo 5; I imagine that this will be one of the most compelling debates of the next console generation, and one which I personally cannot wait to get involved in.

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare for XBLA and PC

Alan Wake was a classic example of a diamond in the rough, something which entirely exceeded the sum of its parts. The actual combat didn’t really do anything special, but the atmosphere was truly sinister, creating a creepiness which didn’t simply rely on jump scares. Suffice it to say that Alan Wake 2 would be very welcome in my eyes. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a spin-off of sorts released on XBLA a couple of years after the first game was released, is not Alan Wake 2.

At the beginning of American Nightmare, our author hero Alan Wake is still stuck in the predicament he was left in at the conclusion of the last game, trapped within the strange, dark dimension beneath Cauldron Lake and thought dead by his family, friends and fans. The appearance in the real world of Mr. Scratch, a doppelganger of Alan and an avatar of pure evil and chaos, necessitates  Alan to force his way into our world. Since the world of darkness is influenced by creativity, in Alan’s case writing, he uses a script he once wrote for the Twilight Zone parody ‘Night Springs’ to enter into an Arizona town of the same name to take down Mr. Scratch.

As with almost everything in this DLC, the ‘Night Springs’ setting feels half baked and never succeeds in living up to its potential. Where the original game did a great job of evoking a strong Twin Peaks/Stephen King vibe, the Twilight Zone pastiche never really picks up. Sure, the odd bit of Twilight Zone style narration is fun, but the environs of American Nightmare never really impress. Part of what made Alan Wake work was that we started out in the day; seeing these pristine and picturesque environments transformed into chilling and oppressive hells was why they worked. American Nightmare skips all that, refusing to take it’s time or pace itself, which cheapens the atmosphere. Possibly the single most egregious element of this game was the repetition of environments. Now, I really hate when games do this, and this is possibly the most obnoxious example that I’ve seen, pathetically justified by the plot. At least in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game let down by repetition of environments, a concerted effort was often made to make these environment feel new, such as the flooding of the forest area. This isn’t the case in American Nightmare. There is a motel, an observatory and a drive-in movie theatre. You will fight your way though each three times before this product limps to a close. This is unacceptable, and clearly signals a sharp cut off early in development before this could be properly fleshed out. I honestly think Remedy are better than this.

Alas, the plot of American Nightmare never really comes together either. Mr. Scratch is a great villain; I always enjoy campy villains who know they’re evil, and love it, and Mr. Scratch is certainly one of those. Mr. Scratch and Alan could have made for some interesting duality, but it never really manifests. Alan is basically the same, which is odd considering that he spent the last two years trapped in an unimaginable alien hellhole. American Nightmare employs a time loop structure to justify its repeating use of locations; I love this idea in theory, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is one of my favourite games ever and absolutely mastered the ‘Groundhog Day’ structure, but American Nightmare squanders the potentially interesting idea, just as it squanders almost every bit of potential it has. I did enjoy the return of the manuscript pages, but where in Alan Wake these were used intelligently, sometimes illuminating the past and sometimes giving the player terrifying glimpses into the future, here they seem pretty random, giving us the odd little detail which, whilst usually interesting, never really coheres.

American Nightmare, lacking the atmosphere of the original game, has to fall back on the somewhat suspect mechanics of the old ‘flashlight then shoot’ technique. This actually works really well in small groups of enemies, but with large groups it just doesn’t work. You won’t be doing much else apart from shooting your way through enemies, with little room given for exploring or straying from the track. Don’t get me wrong, the mechanics of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare are functional and solid, but uninspired, and difficult to get excited about.

The voice acting, a high point of the last game, is pretty weak here. It’s a bit difficult to tell whether it’s the writing holding the actors back though, as these characters are written truly awfully. The game actually looks very nice for an XBLA title, with the lighting effects of the torch as impressive as ever, and there are some stunning pre-rendered cut scenes bookending major events in the game. A major step back can be seen in the character animations, which are as stiff and awkward as one would expect in a PS2 game, making potentially tense scenes feel somewhat ridiculous. Now, one element which does live up to the original is the soundtrack. Much as Stephen King packs his novels with references to bands which he loves, Alan Wake was filled with musical cues from figures as diverse as Roy Orbison, David Bowie and Depeche Mode. American Nightmare isn’t long enough to do this, but it’s licensed music still packs a punch, with ‘Club Foot’ by Kasabian used to great effect. Best of all is the return of Poets of the Fall performing as ‘The Old Gods of Asgard’. The Old Gods, aging prog rockers who once fought the darkness with their music as Alan fights it with writing, were probably my favourite element of Alan Wake’s plot, so the return of their music was entirely welcome and works incredibly well. I truly hope that Remedy manage to keep Poets of the Fall on board if they ever make a proper Alan Wake 2.

This review probably reads more negatively than Alan Wake’s American Nightmare warrants. There’s a lot done well here, and at times American Nightmare evokes what made Alan Wake great, but it falls very short of the mark. There’s a laziness to this release which infuriated me, and the plot, so strong in the original, doesn’t really work here. Now, I bought this for half price, and, if you liked Alan Wake, it’s probably worth the money at that cost. At full price? Don’t even think about it. AlanWakesAmericanNightmare

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

Well, great, now I’m an emotional wreck. Thanks Dan Simmons. Why did your conclusion to the almost flawless Hyperion Cantos have to be so profound and moving? Endings are hard, and I’ve experienced none which are an unqualified success. Well, until The Rise of Endymion that is.

The Rise of Endymion picks up where Endymion left off, with Raul and Aenea sojourning on Old Earth as Aenea learns architecture from a cybrid replicant of Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years later, Aenea and Raul must leave, continuing their journey to undermine the Pax, as we follow Raul in Aenea’s wake, as she reveals to humanity the degradation of the cruciform, the truth behind the Void -which-binds and the origins of the Shrike. As well as the continuing adventures of Raul and Aenea, we also receive several POV story lines from senior members of the Pax, including the return of Father Captain de Soya , as the Pope, a corrupted former Hyperion pilgrim Lenar Hoyt, launches a holy crusade against the Ousters, all whilst the AI TechnoCore lurks in the background.

The Rise of Endymion is less focused upon a heroic journey/adventure structure than its predecessor was, but still brings us to a wide range of locations within Simmons’ well drawn universe, including some incredibly striking locales. If there is one fundamental message to The Rise of Endymion, it’s that homogeneity is always less favourable than variety, perhaps a direct challenge to the monolithic cultures which often feature in classic science fiction (Iain M. Banks is good at avoiding this too.) We encounter a variety of fascinating and beautiful cultures in this novel, often rather bizarre yet unrecognisably human, on planets beautifully depicted , which only makes the repellence of the oppressive Catholic Pax all the more sickening.

The Hyperion Cantos has tended to have a fairly tight structure, not quite as sprawling as other science fiction works, but benefiting from a clarity of focus which Iain M. Banks could learn from. The Rise of Endymion is possibly the most uneven novel in the series, and for the first time in the series I felt that there were elements which were slightly overplayed. The variety of Pax figures we gain insights into feels a bit much, and I found myself missing the tight opposition of Raul and Father Captain de Soya of Endymion, as each chapter alternated between them, often offering different, yet nonetheless fascinating, perspectives on the same events. That said, The Rise of Endymion only feels flabby when held against the other novels in the Hyperion Cantos, and still stands as an absolutely superlative example of the genre, with pacing kept at a good rate throughout. This is a highly satisfying conclusions; Simmons doesn’t hold off on giving answers for the sake of a false ‘ambiguity’, a flaw which underpins almost all of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s work, offering satisfying conclusions to the narratives of almost all of the key players in the Hyperion Cantos, and delving into the truly vast metanarrative of the TechoCore, the alien intelligences known as ‘Lions and Tigers and Bears’, and the grand future war between the AI Ultimate Intelligence and the human generated Empathic Intelligence which opposes it. The scale which Simmons engages with is breathtaking, with these grand ideas and concepts always feeling relatable to the human characters they indirectly affect.

A pleasant surprise in this novel is how much it made me laugh. Raul’s position primarily as an observer allows an entertainingly wry perspective on events, in particular during a conversation with an earnest young priest which absolutely cracked me up. Where Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion held a palpable sense of menace and tension throughout, crafting striking imagery, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion are more beautiful than menacing. Simmons’s gorgeous descriptive powers provide some highly evocative writing, creating incredibly vivid images of these wonderful places in the mind. Simmons handles the emotional stuff exceptionally  well; this novel is, at times, incredibly moving, as much as Sol Weintraub’s story in Hyperion, with Simmons knowing exactly how to tug at the heart strings without resorting to mawkish sentimentality.

The Rise of Endymion does a great job of giving all of the little character moments needed when closing out a series like this. Rather than just focus upon Raul and Aenea, we gain plenty of wonderful moments for great characters such as Father Captain de Soya. The welcome return of many characters from the earlier novels, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion is extremely welcome, even if they are somewhat fleeting. The cast blossoms perhaps too much in this novel, with an extended sojourn in the Buddhist influenced T’ien Shan picking up a whole bunch of new characters, some of which are vivid and strong, such as the Dorje Pamo, known as the ‘Thunder Sow’, the female head of an all male monastery, and the brilliant young Dalai Lama, but not all fare so well. We are introduced to a dazzling number of new characters, and it’s difficult to gain and real investment in them, and I found myself eager to return to the established characters from earlier in the series. That said, the characterisation is nonetheless top notch, and I can honestly say that I’m going to miss Raul, Aenea and Father Captain de Soya  a lot. These are characters who could easily have been one note, but Simmons offers them surprising and rewarding depths.

The Rise of Endymion is an excellent conclusion to an excellent series. I’m somewhat prone to superlatives, and they’re something I try to avoid in my writing, but I honestly cannot think of a science fiction series which I have enjoyed as much as the ‘Hyperion Cantos.’ Although there was a clear attempt at the opening of Endymion to position this work as more of a spin off than a full blown sequel to the earlier novels, The Rise of Endymion abandons this, and to the absolute benefit of the series. Everything hangs together very coherently, and although it’s clear that Simmons is retconning in the way he handles certain potential plot holes, it’s all to the benefit of holding the Cantos together. If you read the earlier parts of the Cantos, and wonder if Endymion and The Rise of Endymion are worthy successors, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.

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Far Cry 3 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Far Cry 3 is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting games that I’ve played in a long time. It’s a game which sticks in the mind and refuses to leave, a fascinating experience which offers something which feels truly new. I loved the original Far Cry, and appreciated the ambition and scope of Far Cry 2 (although it’s telling that this is one of the very few games which I never bothered to finish). After the huge disappointment of Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3 goes a long way to redeeming Ubisoft in my eyes (although the Rayman Legends delay puts them on bloody thin ice).

Far Cry 3 takes place entirely in the first person, from the perspective of a young American by the name of Jason Brody. Jason and his friends had skydived onto a beautiful island somewhere near Thailand as part of a thrill seeking holiday before being captured by human traffickers and sold into slavery. Jason escapes the stronghold of Vaas, the local pirate leader, but at the cost of the life of his brother. Jason embarks upon a quest to rescue his friends from Vaas, eventually being drawn into the local tribe of the island, the Rakyat, and becoming profoundly affected by the unimaginable violence which he is committing.

Far Cry 3 takes place on two islands, both fairly large, and incredibly beautiful to look at. Ubisoft are incredibly good at creating gorgeous worlds for the player to explore, from my personal favourite, Beyond Good & Evil’s Hillys through to the Renaissance wonder of Florence in Assassin’s Creed II and the Maharajah’s palace in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Far Cry 3 is, in some ways, the apex of this development philosophy, the idea that it isn’t enough to be doing fun stuff in a game, but that the actual environs of the game must be equally compelling. I absolutely loved exploring the islands of Far Cry 3, with new areas of the map revealed by scaling high points, in a mechanic cheerfully borrowed from Assassin’s Creed. The world of Far Cry 3 can sometimes feel like too much of a good thing; the unrelenting glory of the locale can actually lead to everywhere feeling a bit…samey. It’s important in open world games to show some variety in their locales. Bethesda, arguably the masters of the open world genre, really get this; Skyrim may follow a clear snowy Nordic theme, but the icy wastes of the north of Skyrim differ greatly from the cooler, more idyllic lands in the south. In Far Cry 3, everywhere shares the same basic look; don’t get me wrong, it’s a hell of a look, and if you are going to only have one look in your game you could do a lot worse than this, but a bit more variety would have been nice. The introduction of the second island would have been a great opportunity to show us somewhere a bit different, but Far Cry 3 makes the exact same mistake as Far Cry 2 in giving us a second area very similar to the first. Ok, this all sounds a lot more negative than I mean it to; Far Cry 3 has one of the best open worlds I’ve ever seen, and without a doubt the very best that I’ve ever seen in an FPS, but it could have been better.

The plot of Far Cry 3 has had so much said about it, been subject to so much controversy, and been the topic of so much discussion that, in an odd way, it’s inherently validated. Anything that provokes this much discussion and debate can’t be that bad right? Far Cry 3 tells one of the most interesting and psychologically complex plots I’ve ever played in an FPS; other FPSs with great plots such as Bioshock and Half Life are focused upon the world, and things external from their (silent) protagonists, but Far Cry 3 is a very different beast, a journey inwards. Jason Brody’s journey from generic frat boy douche to brooding killer is accomplished with remarkable subtlety, and although it isn’t quite convincing that Jason is so able to adapt a life of death and carnage, it’s certainly interesting nonetheless, dealing with themes covered extensively in literature and film, but rarely unexplored in games. It’s not as fun to massacre thousands of people if your protagonist is ruminating on the morals of what they’re doing. That said, there’s a lot about this game that I felt to be repugnant; the presentation of the Rakyat tribe seems incredibly racially insensitive, with Jason’s induction into their tribe reeking of colonialist fantasies, and there were elements of the game which felt uncomfortably misogynistic and homophobic as well. Jeffrey Yohalem, the lead writer of Far Cry 3, has dismissed criticism of racism by claiming that Jason is an unreliable narrator, that we cannot take what we see at face value, and that the game is in fact a satire of a Western colonial attitude towards ‘tribespeople’. Now, there are some hints towards this in the actual game, notable some trippy dream sequences, but if the intent of the narrative was to suggest that Jason is in fact losing it and that everything we are witnessing is tainted by his madness, then this intent has entirely failed. For the vast majority of the game, there’s no hint that what we are seeing isn’t to be taken at face value, and no, a few Alice in Wonderland quotes during loading screens is not enough to convey this. A variety of Poe’s law has to be applied there; if your game is indistinguishable from the Western racial preconceptions it intends to satirise, that satire has failed. Now, I’m not saying that the writers of Far Cry 3 are racist, I honestly think that they were going for satire, but if that is the case they failed. Honestly though, I’d take the magnificent failure of Far Cry 3’s plot, filled with complex ideas which fuel debate, over other generic FPS plot any day. I enjoyed how much Far Cry 3 made me think.

Although I’ve played lots of open world RPGs with FPS elements, such as Borderlands 2 and Bethesda and Obsidian’s Fallout games, this is the first successful open world FPS with RPG elements. It’s a subtle difference, but in those games the focus is very much on being an RPG, with the shooting mechanics taking a back seat. Sure, there are lots of FPSs out there which operate within large, tactical environments, such as Crysis and Halo, but they’re not truly open world, simply a series of discrete areas. This is not the case in Far Cry 3, which lives up to the promise of its predecessor as a fully open world game. The shooting mechanics are solid, and the enemy AI is decent enough. The real triumph of this game is the open ended approach taken to missions. In Assassin’s Creed III, there was only ever really one way to do things, but here it’s really up to you. When approaching an enemy outpost, you could go straight in, all guns blazing, or maybe start a fire in the building to drive them out into the path of mines. Both work, and both are fun. How about picking everyone off from afar with a sniper rifle? My favourite way to play this game was to strip away the technology, to attempt to succeed with nothing but a bow and machete, with the reluctant withdrawing of my highly powered Israeli made assault rifle a last resort. This game succeeds in making you feel awesome, because it respects your decisions, and the rights of the player to do things how they want, something which Assassin’s Creed III entirely misunderstood.

There’s a lot going on in this game, such a robust levelling system, which unlocks a slew of fun abilities for Jason, and a decent crafting system to create medicines and new gear. My favourite gadget at Jason’s disposal was the wing suit, acquired during the second half of the game, which allows Jason to glide from any high point. My favourite aspect of this though is that you really don’t need to be that high to use the wing suit, so my preferred way of getting around became leaping off small rocks, deploying the wing suit and then releasing my parachute, which is not only a fast way to get around, but also an incredibly fun one. The driving is a bit tricky at first, as with the rest of the game it’s all first person, and whilst it can be a bit clunky and awkward, there’s no denying that it can be incredibly exhilarating, especially during some of the hair raising chase sequences in the campaign in some of the incredibly fun driving side missions.

There’s a lot to do in this game too. Unlike in many open world games, the actual central story missions are usually incredibly fun. Whilst most of the game allows the player to go at their own pace organically, the main story missions are a fair bit more scripted, but this isn’t really a bad thing. The sheer mayhem inflicted in these missions is sheer giddy fun, and they don’t get old, particularly if you space them out with some of the more thoughtful, inventive side activities. As well as liberating enemy strongholds, you’ll be sent out on assassination and hunting missions. The hunting missions are initially a lot of fun, with the player often required to kill dangerous animals with completely silly weapons, but it does wear slightly thin towards the end. There are some side missions with stories as well, and these don’t work nearly as well. I can only think of two which were actually engaging, and when compared to other open world games Far Cry 3 is entirely lacking in this department. That said, Far Cry 3 does have much better main story than most open world games, so this can be forgiven. I wish that there had been a bit more variety in the side missions, but the basic mechanics of Far Cry 3 are so accomplished that even the most rote missions are fun.

Far Cry 3 is a very nice looking game, but as with many games in the last year or so it really pushes current generation consoles to their limit. I can’t really blame Far Cry 3 for this, and it certainly isn’t the barely playable mess of Assassin’s Creed 3. The voice acting is something of a mixed bag; the main characters generally work really well, but the minor NPCs are truly terrible, I’m talking ‘worse than Oblivion’ terrible. The voice actor for Jason does a fine job during the main story, conveying the building rage within our young protagonist extremely convincingly, but during side missions he sounds hilariously disinterested and unengaged, which only contributes to the half baked feeling to these side activities. The clear highlight in the voice work is Vaas, a brilliant character who, despite his prominence in promotional materials for this game, doesn’t play nearly as vital a role in the ultimate plot that he should. I’m convinced that Vaas has climbed up alongside GLaDOS and Andrew Ryan as one of the best videogame villains in recent years, and a lot of this comes down to the manic and chaotic voice performance by Michael Mando. Mando was motion captured for the role as well, and deserves a huge amount of credit for creating this wonderful character. As mentioned before however, the voices for minor characters are often laughably bad. The average islander talks with a bizarre Maori accent, entirely inappropriate to the setting, and is usually played for laughs. Far Cry 3 points at these hapless islanders and says ‘oh look at these ridiculous locals and their bizarre problems, thank God our strapping young American hero is here to say the day!’ It’s probably the most offensive part of this game, and really drew me out of the experience in a way that nothing else did. Far Cry 3 does wield a dubious honour however; it is the game which made me understand the point of dubstep. I’m not what you would call a fan of this popular musical genre, but the use of it during some of the most tense moments in the game was incredibly immersive and exciting, working brilliantly.

Despite a story which falls short in its grand ambitions (whilst still being incredibly interesting in its own right), Far Cry 3 is an absolutely superlative experience. This is the most satisfying FPS experience which I have played since Bioshock back in 2007; Far Cry 3 is one of those games which make other games look bad. If you enjoy shooters, or open world games, Far Cry 3 is a great example of both. Far Cry 3 is a fascinating game, one which will be debated and discussed for a while, and I look forward to the continuation of the discussion which has engulfed this game since its release.far_cry_3_0_241245411566_640x360

XCOM: Enemy Unknown for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake/reboot of the 1990s strategy classic, and unlike most reboots of 1990s strategy classics it’s not an FPS! I don’t play many strategy games; sure, I’ve dabbled in Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, but I tend not to get very far due to the shameful fact that I’m usually incredibly bad at them, and lack the patience these games generally need. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is therefore the kind of game which would normally fly straight under my radar, if not for the ecstatic love this game seems to inspire. You couldn’t visit any gaming blog without someone or other raving about how wonderful this game is, so against my better judgement I picked it up with a voucher and decided to give it a go. Hey internet? You were totally right!

The plot of XCOM is fairly simple; the player is the faceless, nameless commander of the XCOM project, an international taskforce with the mission of halting a global alien invasion. The player leads XCOM through several key victories to attempt to repel the alien forces, building up the XCOM project and keeping the Council Nations that fund XCOM happy.

XCOM immediately appealed to me due to its international flavour; this isn’t simply a tale of Americans saving America. The whole world throws their cards on the table, and the whole word is the focus. The actual international environments the player engages the enemy in aren’t particularly impressive however; I know this is an alien invasion, and everything is all shattered and broken, but it may have been nice if there was some kind of distinction between Argentina and Japan.

The actual plot of XCOM really isn’t anything special at all. The small handful of characters, figures who head up areas such as the scientific research and engineering wings, aren’t particularly interesting or memorable in any way. However, I was probably more invested in XCOM than I was in most games I play. There is a strong narrative in this game, but it’s a narrative reliant of the imagination of the player. My squad of alien fighting commandos had zero actual personalities, but…well, I grew fond of them, and without realising it I’d ended up getting invested in these empty avatars. I was imposing my own imagined personalities on these soldiers; there’s absolutely no reason why I should imagine my French sniper lady as a troubled renegade, but…er, I did. I was given no reason to believe that my heavy weapons expert, a huge hulking bald man, would conceal a more sensitive and erudite side, but I found myself, with no conscious effort to do so, imagining them this way. Now, of course this isn’t something that will happen with every player, but reading around it seems that I’m not the only one. Firaxis deserve credit for this; even if they didn’t actually make the epic, personal tale which formed in my head, they created a game which is extremely open and friendly to this kind of experience, and I suspect that this was their intention.

The gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is divided into two clear halves; on one side we have the battles on the ground, commanding your squad in turn based encounters, with the other in the base, managing resources and construction. Both halves are very well developed, with neither feeling tacked on to the other; they function in harmony, which is actually pretty rare in games like these. The turn based combat, of a squad originally of four that can be expanded to six, starts out very simple with all of your troops starting out the same, but before long things will get a bit more complex as your troops take on individual roles. I started the game with four generic soldiers, and ended it with such motley troops as a psychic run and gun assault trooper, a heavy weapons guy with a jetpack and a rocket launcher and a little drone which could fly around and rain death from above. Developing your troops, through both a levelling system and the crafting of new weapons and armour is incredibly satisfying, and significantly raises the stakes, because, as in Fire Emblem, when these troops die they stay dead. There are a decent range of alien foes, with different attack patterns and posing different threats, and these sections are a lot of fun, although never quite reaching the staggering complexity that Advance Wars could sometimes slip into.

After each battle, the player is transferred back to their base, and it’s here that I had the most fun. The player can upgrade their squad, build new facilities, launch new research projects, and manage their global position. Twenty countries support XCOM, and when 8 leave due to rising panic the game ends. Like, actually ends. There aren’t many games where you can straight up fail; not go back to the beginning of the level or anything like that, but actually fail, so the stakes are high. The whole game is a delicate balancing act; I need to research laser weaponry to stand up to tougher aliens, but if I do I won’t have enough money to provide satellite coverage over China to protect their populations, but I won’t be able to protect their population without laser weaponry oh dear lord I’m so stressed out. This game is not a relaxing experience, and that’s why I love it. Not only is there a financial cost to everything, but building projects and research take time to complete as well, with some taking up to twenty in game days, days which could be filled with UFO attacks, alien terror strikes or abductions. There are more complex base management games out there, and there are more complex turn based strategy games, but I haven’t played any game which marries the two so successfully.

Probably the biggest let down of this game is it’s visuals. XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t really have a coherent visual style. The visuals of this game would have done very well to have been stylised in some way; I can’t help but feel that Borderlands-esque cell-shading would have been a great look for this game. The environments are unimpressive, murky and dark but not in an atmospheric way, merely dull to look at. The earlier alien designs are impressive, particularly the sinister ‘Tall Men’, and I quite liked the self consciously cliché design of the grey, bulbous headed ‘Sectoids’, but later enemies are often rather uninspired. The sound design doesn’t fare much better; perhaps a bit more customisation in the voices of our soldiers would be nice, I’d quite like my French sniper to actually have a French accent! The visual and audio design of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is extremely conservative, in a game which in other ways takes some real risks.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is very much a game which exceeds the sum of its parts. Most games which mash together a bunch of different elements fail, but XCOM succeeds comfortably. Nonetheless, this game feels almost a template for something even better to come; purists will tell me that that game is the original XCOM on PC, but screw those guys. If you enjoy turn based strategy games, this one is a no brainer, but I’d also highly recommend it even to those who aren’t. This is one of the most rewarding and satisfying game experiences I’ve enjoyed in the past year, and a game which comfortably lives up to the hype. XCOM-line-up

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

Taking another of my occasional forays outside of genre fiction, I followed the recommendation of a friend and gave First Love, Last Rites a go, the first publication of the renowned English author Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of the most respected writers in the English language of the last 50 years, so I was likely destined to come across him eventually. First Love, Last Rites is an interesting collection, containing possibly the most shocking and appalling scenes of depravity which I’ve ever read. I’d thought myself beyond being shocked, but Ian McEwan only went right ahead and did it. Seriously, this collection makes Blasted by Sarah Kane look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As I did with China Miéville’s Looking for Jake short story collection, I’ll briefly look at each story and give my thoughts.

Homemade

The first story of the collection is also the most disturbing. McEwan’s unnamed narrator is a teenaged young man, schooled in depravity by an older friend, and has become fixated with the loss of his virginity. In a dispassionate and callous narrative, the narrator has sex with his ten year old sister in an unbearably graphic conclusion which affected me with a visceral horror. Now, it’s important to break taboos. In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the primary purposes of art. However, there must, must, always be a point to this. To do otherwise is simple nihilism, a world view which I consider abhorrent and I feel entirely unsympathetic to. I’m not convinced that McEwan is saying anything of substance here, that he isn’t simply setting out to shock; it must be taken into account that this story is the first story in McEwan’s first published work, and therefore the first that many in the literary establishment would have encountered of him. Perhaps this story is a statement of defiance, an aggressive posturing to say that ‘no, I will not write the way you want me to’, but it doesn’t stop this story from being an utterly miserable, lurid little mess which negatively colours the entire collection.

Solid Geometry

Happily, following my least favourite story in the collection came my favourite. ‘Solid Geometry’ is also told in the first person, and not from the point of view of a child as most of the stories in the collection are. The narrator is editing the diaries of his great-grandfather, and has become obsessed with them, and the mystery of the vanishing of ‘M’, an enigmatic figure who played a key role in the diaries. This obsession has come at the cost of his relationship with his wife Maisie, a rather pitiful and pathetic figure for whom her husband feels nothing but contempt. In his journey through the diaries, the narrator encounters the story of the discovery of a ‘plane without a surface’, a geometrical impossibility, which McEwan imbues with a palpably sinister energy. This story fundamentally unsettled me, and I found frightening in a way which actual ‘horror’ novels rarely achieve for me. Something about this story truly upset me, and bothered me on a profound level, precisely the reaction I suspect that McEwan was going for. He doesn’t do so through simply shock value as he does in ‘Homemade’, but through some incredibly clever writing and story development. If you only read one story from First Love, Last Rites, that story should be ‘Solid Geometry.’

Last Day of Summer

This story is an odd one, and one of the few lacking in overt sexual themes. Instead, we have a story which feels the most ‘respectable’ in the collection. ‘Last Day of Summer’ is the story of a young orphan, who lives with his brother in a sort of commune. Jenny, an obese and anxious young woman, joins the members of the commune, and over the course of a summer becomes something of a surrogate mother figure to our narrator and Alice, the daughter of a young woman whose priorities lie with her own social life rather than her child. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one, but it certainly is beautifully written. McEwan may be most interested in portrayal of depravity and perversion in First Love, Last Rites, but he does a good job conveying a beautiful nostalgia for an English summer.

Cocker at the Theatre

This story is very much the oddball of the collection, a very short little vignette set in a theatre. The show is a bawdy pornographic production, in which pairs of naked dancers simulate sex to raunchy music. Much to the horror of the director and choreographer, one couple aren’t simulating. I wasn’t quite sure why this story was included in the collection; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’ it still fits thematically with the rest, and this one really doesn’t; it’s quite baffling really. That said, it’s quite funny and good for a couple of giggles, a pleasant respite from the sinister horror which bookends it.

Butterflies

‘Butterflies’ deals with themes as disturbing as those in ‘Homemade’, but in a much more successful manner. Our narrator this time is a lonely, isolated man with a strange physical deformity, an outcast. He’s not a child in body, but in many ways he is one in mind. Our narrator is the last witness to the drowning of a young girl in a canal, and it’s not difficult to predict that there’s more to this event than what he claims to the police. The real horror of  this story is the sympathy we are invited to feel for our protagonist, we empathise with his loneliness and wish him to find happiness. The revelation of the terrible crimes that our narrator has committed sits very uncomfortably with our earlier sympathy, in a profoundly disturbing insight into the mind of an extremely damaged individual.

Conversation with a Cupboard Man

This was probably my second favourite story after ‘Solid Geometry.’ It shies away from the depraved sexuality of the other stories, instead focusing upon cruelty and horror of a different sort. Our narrator is a young man who had been kept until the age of 18 at the developmental stage of an infant, by a truly disturbed mother. Although not actually mentally impaired, our narrator might as well have been, stuck with the temperament of a two year old for most of his life. Upon getting a new boyfriend, our narrator is kicked out of the house, and soon has to fend for himself in a world he is woefully unprepared for. It’s a fascinating, and horrifying idea, and more so than any other story in this collection it could be fleshed out to make a great full novel. The brevity of this story is actually a bit of a shame, I’d have loved to follow this character more, but what we do have is a highly interesting story, with a rather heartbreaking protagonist, clearly highly intelligent, yet entirely incapable of escaping the damage done to him.

First Love, Last Rites

The title story of this collection is an odd one; it’s definitely not one of the more interesting stories, but McEwan must have been particularly fond of it to name the collection after it. This story is of a young man living with his girlfriend, Sissel, spending most of their time loafing around and having sex. Sissel and our narrator are regularly visited by Sissel’s brother Adrian, a precocious little sod fleeing his broken home. Behind their wall, Sissel and our narrator have been hearing an odd scratching noise. I found it really hard to get to grips with this story; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’, it at least provoked a reaction from me, but this didn’t really give me anything. Perhaps a closer reading is in order, but I don’t necessarily have the inclination to do so; I’m far from certain that it would be worth my time.

Disguises

The final story of the collection is another oddball; it is not told in the first person as in the others, which creates an odd sense of detachment from everything, quite unlike the horrific throwing into the midst and internal torrent that defines the rest of the collection. ‘Disguises’ follows a young boy named Henry, who has been adopted by his aunt following the death of his mother. Aunt Mina is an actress, perhaps once talented but now doing little more than television ads. She is also pretty much entirely insane. Every evening she dresses herself and Henry in strange costumes and role plays; Henry is acquiesces to this, until he is forced into cross dressing. This is another story about sexual awakening, but of a gentler sort to that seen in ‘Homemade’. Henry’s first stirrings of lust for a girl in his class is presented in a rather sweet way, as actually perfectly natural and healthy. Henry’s sexual identity seems to be doing fine on its own; it is the outside influence of Mina which threatens to complicate matters. Perhaps, after all of the horror which we have witnessed in this collection, McEwan is revealing that the innocence of children is not a lie, that this corruption is external, not internal. Henry is a victim. So is the Cupboard Man. In a twisted way, the rapist/murderer protagonist of ‘Butterflies’ is a victim too.

 

First Love, Last Rites is an uneven collection, but that said there are very few short story collections out there without their fair share of misses alongside the hits. ‘Solid Geometry’ and ‘Conversation with a Cupboard Man’ are excellent, and worth the price of entry alone, but that’s not to say that there isn’t anything else of value here. This is a very dark collection, profoundly disturbing and upsetting to read, but it has nonetheless piqued my interest in McEwan. FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES.

Kraken by China Miéville

Ah, China Miéville, never change. Who’d have thought that things could have gotten weirder from Embassytown and the Bas-Lag trilogy? This time Miéville doesn’t even need to construct a new setting, such as New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station or the eponymous Embassytown, instead setting this bizarre and fantastic tale inside of London. I first gained an inkling of Miéville’s fascination for his home city in the excellent short story collection Looking for Jake, with most of the stories taking place in London. In fact, the seeds for Kraken can first be seen being planted in that collection. This novel draws immediate comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but never feels derivative, offering a vision of a fantastical London which feels suitably different from that shown in Neverwhere.

Kraken is, like Neverwhere, set in a London which contains a fully fleshed out, vibrant world alongside the mundane one of our reality, hidden from the general public. Where Neverwhere had a much clearer division between the London of reality and the mystical underground alongside it all, in Kraken this bizarre London bubbles much closer to the surface, to the point that it can rather strain belief that everyday residents haven’t noticed anything. I think this may have been intentional; Miéville is possibly commenting on the way that people will blindly ignore what is right in front of them if it doesn’t conform to their pr-existing beliefs or thought structures. Regardless, this is a London filled with bizarre warring factions, some religious cults and some supernatural criminal gangs. Along the way we encounter the ‘Chaos Nazis’, the ‘Gunfarmers’, the ‘Londonmancers’ and plenty more. I won’t say much about the strange and fantastic things the reader encounters here, as discovering yet another layer to this strange world is probably the chief pleasure of this novel.

Kraken follows a few characters, but at its core is the curator Billy Harrow, a ‘normal’ drawn into the bizarre parallel London, a la Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere. Billy is giving a tour of the Natural History Museum, and he is about to bring his group to the star attraction; a fully intact, preserved giant squid. However, things don’t quite go to plan. Somehow, impossibly, the giant squid has been stolen from under the nose of the museum staff, and has been whisked away. The giant squid, or ‘Kraken’, is the God of a cult, and a being of immense power. This power of the squid is being harnessed by a mysterious figure to bring about a fiery apocalypse. Billy, as the curator who embalmed the squid, is hailed as a prophet by the cult and is drawn into Mieville’s wonderful and strange London to hunt down the squid and attempt to avert the oncoming apocalypse.

Kraken is probably Mieville’s most uneven novel I’ve yet read. The plot of Kraken doesn’t quite hold together throughout the novel, often feeling more like a series of amusing and interesting vignettes rather than a coherent whole. The central mystery of exactly what’s going on with the giant squid never feels quite as prominent as it should, and Mieville is perhaps a little too eager to foist another strange bunch of factions upon us rather than sticking to the central premise. Mieville used this fractured style to great effect in Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but it doesn’t quite work as well here. That said, this is simply one of the most fun novels I’ve ever read. If taken as what it is, rather than what we may want it to be, Kraken is one of the most entertaining novels that you’re likely to read, a great example of the wonderful merging of social-political commentary, edifying intellectualism and glorious silliness which makes up Mieville’s unique style. Mieville’s penchant for Marxist themes in his writing are on clear display here, but never overwhelms the entire novel as it did in the somewhat disappointing Iron Council. To clarify, I’m not opposed to fantasy taking a political stance, but I don’t believe that it should ever get in the way of a good story, and if used subtly can significantly enhance it, as it does in Kraken.

Mieville is a writer not content to stick with the relatively plain style generally favoured by writers in the genre, and his ebullient prose is always a lot of fun to read. Kraken takes a while to find it’s tone, but when it does it settles into it nicely. There’s a lot of authorial interjection in this novel, an almost conversational or chatty tone to the narration which reminded me of Stephen King’s folksy style. This is not a novel written with an impassive aloofness, a method which is generally the safest bet as too much of an authorial presence can be rather wearying. Mieville pulls it off nicely though, with the authorial voice often delivering some of the funniest lines in the novel. Oh, and wow is this a funny novel. Mieville’s other works which I have read weren’t exactly laugh riots, some of the stories from Looking for Jake excepted, but Kraken shows that Mieville has some solid comedy chops as well.

Whilst Billy’s development from mild mannered, geeky museum curator to savvy, supernatural badass isn’t particularly convincing, the supporting cast entirely makes up for it. Particular highlights included Wati, an incorporeal entity who heads a union for familiars, a figure whose back story is one of the most fascinating and moving I’ve ever encountered. A great comic highlight was Collingswood, a foul mouthed young witch who works for a branch of the police specialising in the supernatural. The characterisation here is probably the best I’ve read since The Scar; like with Steven Erikson, in Mieville’s novels, the world itself is often the star, with the actual characters somewhat paling next to the vivid and fascinating settings Mieville has conjured. Happily, in Kraken this isn’t the case.

Things aren’t all rosy however; the awfully sinister and insidious villains Goss and Subby are suitably loathsome and horrible, but are somewhat diminished by their startling similarity to Croup and Vandemar of Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not simply rip-offs, and are interesting figures in their own right, but anyone who has read Neverwhere will be extremely distracted by the similarity, and they never quite manage to match the wonderful creepiness that Gaiman’s creations exhibited. I suspect that Goss and Subby were intended as an homage to Croup and Vandemar, but it’s an homage which is just too close to what it pays tribute to.

Kraken is, whilst not quite living up to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, a really fun book which never stops revealing hidden depths until it ends. It’s a sprawling, uneven, and oddly undisciplined novel, but it’s strengths comfortably shine through these issues and leaves Kraken a thoroughly enjoyable read. If you’re a fan of Mieville’s other work, or even the works of writers such as Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, you should find a lot to love about Kraken. 

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