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Archive for the tag “third person shooter”

Mass Effect: Andromeda for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Genuinely bad AAA games are rare nowadays. Your annual Call of Duty is probably always going to be at least competent and well put together; so much money is poured into these things that the most common issue is blandness, rather than actual disaster. Actual disasters are few and far between, with Assassin’s Creed: Unity being one of the few that springs to mind. Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the roughest, most frustrating AAA games I’ve played in years. Unlike some of the more hyperbolic reactions it has garnered, I don’t think it’s awful. There are things to like here, but troubled game development is writ large over almost every part of the game. Some rough AAA games such as Final Fantasy XV can be so oddball and weird that they loop round to being loveable, despite their flaws, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is simultaneously too ambitious and conservative in design to achieve even this. Mass Effect: Andromeda has its moments, but it’s difficult to view it as anything but a failure.

Sidestepping the endings of Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect; Andromeda takes place 600 years later, in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative sent forth massive arks of Milky Way species in stasis, to awaken in their new home and establish a new frontier. Upon arrival, the Initiative discover that the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy is more dangerous than they thought, with a mysterious phenomenon known as the Scourge damaging the ark ships and a hostile alien force, the Kett, determined to wipe them out. Commander Shepard is gone and replaced with Pathfinder Ryder; the Pathfinder is the one who is in charge of scouting planets and establishing new outposts. Only the human ark, the Hyperion, as well as the central hub of the Nexus, have made their way to the intended destination. Ryder must set out with a new crew and her ship the Tempest to establish new homes for the Initiative, fight the kett and find the missing ark ships.

Andromeda’s story stumbles out of the gate. It attempts to take the series in a whole new direction, but in the process forgets what people liked about the original trilogy. The original trilogy had a brilliant sense of humanity as the new kids on the block, the upstarts. There was a real sense of defined history which impacted the events of the story: the Rachni Wars, the Genophage, the Quarian creation of the Geth. The setting felt full and alive and engaging. Mass Effect: Andromeda goes for a more Star Trek approach, focusing on exploration and discovering new lands. Without this sense of culture and society, the whole setting feels unbearably bland. Everyone keeps going on about how utterly alien it is, but it’s no more unique than anywhere from the original setting; we still have an ice planet, a jungle planet, a desert planet etc. The returning races from the original trilogy are the Asari, Salarians, Turians and Krogan. A lot of the weirder and funnier species make no appearance, such as the Quarians, Hanar, Elcor or Volus. The new species don’t exactly fill the void; the Kett are mindless and lack in any sort of personality. The Heleus natives, the Angara, are generally likeable, being built on empathy and emotional connection, but really they just feel like a combination of the original Council races. They have the empathy of Asari, the intelligence of the Salarians and the battle-prowess of the Turians, but I don’t think people are going to be clamouring for the return of the Angara whenever this series comes back. The new galaxy setting had the opportunity to double down on some of the glorious weirdness from the original trilogy, but ends up as far more conservative.

There’s little sense of narrative drive, with frustratingly vague goals. This may be a consequence of the open world approach taken, but Dragon Age: Inquisition did the same thing and I felt still managed to tell a coherent story. Where the original trilogies had an unknowable and terrifying foe, the Reapers, lurking in the background, it was fronted by believable and engaging villains, with even forces like the Geth and the Rachni imbued with depth and clear motivation. The lack of an engaging antagonist makes the whole thing feel directionless. I overall liked the new crew, particularly the elderly warrior Krogan Drack and the Angaran charmer Jaarl. Still, when you look back at the squad in Mass Effect 2, possibly the best team of characters I’ve seen in an RPG, they never come close to the same status. The voice acting is generally good, but the writing is much more mixed. Outside of some core main characters, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely forgettable quest givers and NPCs. Much was made of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman who within seconds of meeting reveals that she is trans, as well as her deadname. Transgender representation in games is a good thing; Bioware themselves pretty much nailed it with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Although the dialogue has been altered and patched, it reveals how utterly shallow these characters are. I could tell you much more about Krem than the fact he is trans, but with Hainly Abrams I could tell you nothing else about her. So much of the writing is entirely shallow, with characters I spent hours with but could tell you almost nothing about. The best parts of the game are the loyalty missions and there are some lovely character moments, but we lack the tension and conflict which undercut the ‘BEST TEAM EVAR’ dynamic if the Normandy. One area that did work for me was Ryder herself. She’s a bit more of a defined character than Shepard and you can’t really be a complete bastard, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the story told here. More often than not, Ryder is sardonic and irreverent, but never irritating. Overall, I think I liked Ryder more than Shepard but unfortunately the people she was interacting with were never as good.

I normally mention technical issues towards the end of a review, but they have to be brought to the forefront here. Now, I’m played this game a couple of patches deep, so the now infamous animation issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they were at launch but, well, they’re still not good. Almost every scene is undermined by them; the characters always look off, never quite seem right, in the way they stand, the way they move, their facial expressions. I’ve read and watched a lot of interesting stuff about this and I totally appreciate the nightmarish complexity of a dynamic animation system a game like this requires, but taking into account the reasons why this problem exists doesn’t actually stop it from being a problem, as sympathetic as I am for the fact that this likely was not the fault of the animation team themselves. There are major issues with the plotting and writing already, but even the stronger scenes (and there are plenty of good ones) are undermined by the animation issue. I suspect that the issues are more fundamental than any patch can solve.

The core structure to Andromeda is very different to the previous games, and resembles Dragon Age; Inquisition more than anything else. Now, I actually really liked Inquisition, although I’m aware that a lot of people didn’t. Sure, not every side quest was a winner, but the focus on exploration was well married to a central plot and I liked the variety of zones. It got blown out of the water by The Wtrcher 3 a few months later, but I still feel that Inquisition is underappreciated. Andromeda attempts the same structure, but is less successful. There are a handful of explorable worlds, which are usually pretty big. All but one use the Nomad, a replacement for the Mako from the first game, an all-terrain vehicle which lets you race around the planet. It controls pretty nicely and has quite impressive grip for more vertical movement, particularly after a few upgrades. Most of your time in the game will be spent getting a mission, driving somewhere in your Nomad, shooting some stuff, and returning. Mission variety isn’t great, but I did like how the game makes it very clear which missions you can avoid. The missions are categorised four different ways; main story quests, loyalty quests/quests attached to a particular supporting character, Heleus tasks which see you improving the different planets, and ‘additional tasks.’ Do the first three, but ignore the ‘additional tasks’, there’s almost nothing worth doing there. I wish more games made it so clear what was filler; one thing I hated about Fallout 4 was the way I would feel tricked into doing boring procedurally generated quests because they were sorted alongside proper ones made by an actual game designer. If you take this approach and ignore the boring missions, the issue of padding and filler becomes much less egregious.

Possibly the only unqualified success of Mass Effect: Andromeda is the combat; it may initially look similar to the original trilogy, but this is mostly superficial as this is most certainly not a cover shooter. It took a while to adjust, but this is a combat system which relies on constant movement and momentum. I went all in with biotics and shotguns, so my approach was largely based around teleporting across the environments and blasting enemies up close. With some cleverly placed upgrades, you can almost break the entire combat in some quite pleasing ways. It stopped being challenging in any way after a few hours, but as a sheer power fantasy I never quite got tired of it. I don’t know how fun other builds are, but I can’t recommend a biotic/shotgun build more highly. My enjoyment of the combat helped to alleviate a lot of the pacing issues; sure, the side quests mostly are of a ‘go here, kill this’ variety, but that never really bothered me.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a disappointment; it has some strengths, but it’s clear that it’s fascinatingly troubled development has left it damaged in a way no patch can fix. There was a lot of potential here, but I think now the best thing that Bioware could do is give it a few years, then return to the Milky Way for an actual Mass Effect 4, leaving Andromeda as a spin-off. I didn’t have an awful time playing this game, it’s OK, but when it was released in the same month as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn, OK isn’t good enough.

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Ratchet & Clank for PS4

I didn’t have a PS2 growing up so my nostalgia is placed firmly in the Gamecube (my all time favourite console) era. I never played Ratchet & Clank, although the whole aesthetic appeals to me. I have a soft spot for mascot platformers; Banjo-Kazooie is one of my favourite games of all time. I’m even a bit fond of some of the bad ones, like Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. The Ratchet & Clank reboot was therefore pretty appealing to me. Although it feels in some ways like a blast from the past, Ratchet & Clank has enough concessions to modernity to make it feel exciting and fun even to a newcomer devoid of nostalgia.

Ratchet is a young mechanic with dreams of greatness; he seeks to join the Galactic Rangers, a squadron of elite space cadets led by the beloved, but in actually arrogant and incompetent, Captain Quark. Meanwhile, the Blarg under Chairman Drek have teamed with the sinister Doctor Neferious to create an army of war robots. One robot is defective and is produced as smaller but more intelligent and with a conscience. This robot, Clank, escapes the factory after escaping destruction and crash lands right in front of Ratchet. The two team up to fight the Blargian threat.

There have been some rather hyperbolic comparisons between this reboot and a Pixar film, but that is overstating it quite a lot. There are some fun characters and moments, particularly involving the Zapp Brannigan-esque Quark, but overall the story is incoherent and difficult to follow. It’s not that the story is complicated, it’s just that everything moves so fast and the storytelling moments so sparse it’s difficult to feel like I should care. The cutscenes that are here are pretty great and it seems odd to want more, but there it is. I wanted to love the story of Ratchet & Clank, but to be honest I finished it yesterday and I’m already fuzzy on the details.

Ratchet & Clank is a hybrid platformer and third person shooter and manages to balance these two mechanics rather well. It’s probably more of the latter than the former and it’s fun to play something so utterly detached from the tropes of the present day. Since Gears of War, third person shooters have invariably been tied into cover mechanics. I love Gears of War, but it’s difficult to deny that this can create stale and boring shooting experiences. Ratchet & Clank is nothing like this, with constant movement being the requirement to survive. There are loads of weapons and I found myself genuinely using almost all of them throughout. The hectic combat was a lot of fun and I never tired of blasting my way through the various stages. To break things up there are some simple, but fun, sections about grinding on rails and hoverboard races, as well as a couple of ship battles. These are well paced to break up the shooting and give you other things to do.

This isn’t a huge game, which is reasonable considering the lower launch price. There is an ostensibly open structure, but mostly the game is linear. There are lots of gadgets to gather, such as a jetpack which can be used in some levels, and this gives the game a slight Metroidvania element when previous planets can be returned to so you can gather collectibles. There are upgrade paths for every weapon and on my one playthrough I was only able to get them all to under 50% completion. I imagine upgrading them fully would take at least one other playthrough on the New Game+ challenge mode. The unlocks for the collectible golden screws are great and bequest all sorts of fun little additions. There are side missions, although not many and most are quite brief. I would probably have rather paid a bit more and got a bit more content, but on the value for money scale Ratchet and Clank is fine.

Ratchet & Clank looks gorgeous, with a clean and bright colour palate and a lovely world. It’s not quite Pixar; maybe more late 2000s Dreamworks, but it still looks bloody good. It’s a shame that this kind of vibrant cartoony game has been in short supply this console generation as Ratchet & Clank shows how good they can look with the boost in power. The voice acting is nice and cheesy, as well it should be for this sort of game. For something which essentially exists to promote a movie, Ratchet & Clank is a very handsomely presented package.

This isn’t the kind of game which is going to particularly linger in my memory, but as a fun and light diversion I really cannot fault it. Although I have no Ratchet & Clank nostalgia it did make me nostalgic for a simpler time. When Yooka-Laylee comes out, which is essentially going to be Banjo-Threeie, I’ll be a quivering wreck.


Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection for PS4

I had been hoping this would come from the day I bought a PS4; the Uncharted franchise always appealed to me but I never had a PS3 so never got a chance. I now see what all the fuss was about, although the experience felt slightly hampered by having been, in my opinion, outdone by other games which have been influenced by this series, most notably the Tomb Raider reboot.

The Uncharted series follows Nathan Drake, a rougish Indiana Jones-esque figure who claims to be the long lost descendent of the legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake. All three games concern mythical lost cities, with the first game Drake’s Fortune relating to the El Dorado, the City of Gold. The second game, Among Thieves, is a tale of betrayal set against the hunt for Shangri-La. Drake’s Deception, number three, is a personal tale which delves into Drake’s core motivations in the hunt for the lost desert city of Ubar, known as the Atlantis of the Desert.

The storytelling in the Uncharted series has been widely praised and I can see why. The voice acting is good and the characters fairly vivid if not exactly complex. All of the characters seem like film characters rather than game characters, but I think that pretentions towards being ‘cinematic’ can sometimes obscure lackluster storytelling. Perhaps it is a side effect of playing all three back to back in this collection, but I found them all quite similar towards the end. Pretty much identical story beats occur in each one and the ‘lost city hiding a terrible secret’ got a pass from me in Among Thieves but had me rolling my eyes with Drake’s Deception. Nathan Drake is a likable protagonist but I don’t think he really gets beyond that; he has frequently been compared to Indiana Jones but he never approaches the quality of that character. That’s not to say that the stories for the Uncharted games are bad, but they never approach the quality of Naughty Dog’s later The Last of Us.

The Uncharted games are a hybrid of Prince of Persia-style platforming and third person cover based shooting. You’ll spend most of the game climbing around walls and shooting foes from cover and two thirds of the time it works really well. There is a massive jump in quality between Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves which is then maintained until Drake’s Deception. It never fails to shock me how quickly games age and Drake’s Fortune is something of a slog. The setpieces are underwhelming and the combat involves unsatisfyingly gunning down wave after wave of identical foes ending in an abysmal boss encounter. I’m sure that this game was more impressive when first released, but playing it initially in 2015 even an extra PS4 lick of paint can’t save it. Thankfully, Among Thieves is an improvement in pretty much every way and a significantly better experience. The combat actually becomes fun and the set pieces begin to get more and more ridiculous. Across Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception many of the set pieces genuinely had me on the edge of my seat, with thrilling platforming sections and combat encounters.

Despite having a few extra bells and whistles in number three, I think that the second Uncharted game, Among Thieves, stood as the best. It hits the sweet spot between ‘gamey’ and ‘cinematic’. Drake’s Fortune is too videogame-y, with a terrible turret section and arbitrary wave after wave of enemy. The gameplay got in the way of its cinematic ambitions, but Drake’s Deception goes a little bit too far the other way. The camera is wrestled away from you far more in Drake’s Deception to give things a more cinematic bent and I found myself missing the sweet middle ground of Among Thieves, which also has the strongest plot.

Drake’s Fortune aside, the games do look bloody lovely. Recently a gaming site mistook Uncharted 2 for Uncharted 4 at a trade show and while that’s a pretty significant oversight, you can see why it could happen. Running at 60FPS these games look incredible, with fluid animations and a sense of chaos and immersion. It goes to show what a difference frame rate makes; I would argue that these PS3 games put up to 60FPS look better than most PS4 games running at 30. The voice acting is very good and generally elevates the story beyond what it probably deserves; Nolan North deserves particular praise as Drake, although I also really liked his sardonic and somewhat grizzled sidekick Sully.

I bought The Nathan Drake collection to find out what all the fuss was about and by and large I did. Elements of these games have dated already and I’m not sure how I’d feel about paying full price for just one of them when Uncharted 4 comes out next year, but all said I enjoyed them. They’re popcorn games to enjoy between meatier experiences and that’s ok.


The Last of Us: Remastered for PS4

I was actually a bit nervous when I picked this up. I mean, it’s so revered, it’s impossible not to wonder if it really could live up to the hype. Well, I needn’t have worried; I absolutely understand the hype. The Last of Us really is special. Included in the PS4 remaster is the similarly excellent Left Behind DLC.

The Last of Us takes place around two decades after a zombie apocalypse, caused by some kind of fungal infection which causes the infected to lose their minds. The protagonist is Joel, a weary man who lost his daughter in the initial panic. With the surviving humanity living in heavily militarised quarantine zones, Joel works as a smuggler. When hunting down a stolen cache of weapons with his companion Tess, Joel encounters Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, a rebel group fighting the quarantine zone authorities. In exchange for the location of the weapons, Marlene asks Joel to bring a teenaged girl named Ellie to a Firefly safehouse outside the quarantine. Initially reluctant, Joel soon discovers Ellie’s secret; that she is infected, but has not turned, seemingly the only person with an immunity. Joel and Ellie embark on an epic trek across the country to the Firefly safe house, with the infected and waves of bandits pitched against them.

Summaries like that is part of the reason I couldn’t get too excited for this game. It basically sounded like The Walking Dead crossed with Children of Men, with nothing too original. Although the concept itself isn’t brimming with originality, in terms of execution I’ll struggle to think of anything which does it better. Joel and Ellie feel like real, fully rounded people, and their journey together is absolutely convincing. The Last of Us also manages to avoid the zombie clichés, with a story which had me gripped and frequently incredible emotional. There are lighter moments too, with the banter between Joel and Ellie regularly raising a smile. The Left Behind DLC, which focused on Ellie both during and prior to the game, was frequently laugh out loud funny. It’s all bittersweet though, with a palpable feeling of sadness throughout the whole thing.

The Last of Us has a key theme, which may sound cheesy: love. Not just love as a redeeming force, but as ultimately the most dangerous thing in this new wasteland. No practical society can truly last, because people are incapable of making sacrifices for love. It is simultaneously humanities best and worst trait. Now, this concept is one that I’ve seen explored loads of places before, but possible never better than in The Last of Us. This is a game which will rattle around in your brain for a long time to come. I also have to mention Ellie; the feisty female sidekick in FPS games have given us some great characters in the past, such as Half Life 2’s Alyx Vance or BioShock: Infinite’s Elizabeth, but Ellie manages to eclipse them both. She’s strong, funny and vulnerable, and easily one of the best game characters of all time.

Again, I was initially concerned that the gameplay would suffer to the story, but that isn’t the case. The Last of Us is a third person shooter with survival horror elements, a bit like Resident Evil 4 but less clunky. There’s a strong element of ammo conservation, with stealth encouraged whenever possible. The shooting is responsive and satisfying when a shoot-out does occur, but you never feel powerful, with Joel being much less hardy than your standard shooter protagonist. This adds to the horror element, with a crafting system allowing Joel to create shivs or makeshift bombs from objects scavenged from the world. There’s also a weapon upgrade system and a skill tree and they’re pretty simple, giving you a nice element of customisation. The stealth is really effective, with a cover system which is contextual but actually functional, something the Assassin’s Creed games have been pretty much failing to pull off for years. There are some light puzzles, but you’ll spend most of your time picking through wreckage, sneaking around or shooting.

The two types of enemies are the ‘infected’ and bandits, which need to be approached in very different ways. The most interesting enemy is the ‘clicker’, which is a blind infected which sees through echolocation. You have to move very quietly to avoid being caught, and when they do they kill you in one bite. You can create distractions using bottles and bricks to distract foes human and infected alike; you’ll have thrown lots of these by the time the credits roll. Although not nearly as slick as other shooters, the gameplay of The Last of Us supports the narrative, whilst actually being fun as well. If all you want to enjoy is some top quality shooting, go buy Wolfenstein; The Last of Us isn’t about being satisfying, it’s about being rewarding. The game is a decent length as well, long enough to feel epic in its scope, but short enough that it tells a compact and tight story. With the DLC, and the multiplayer as well, The Last of Us: Remastered is a great package.

The Last of Us: Remastered looks fantastic, easily holding its own against current gen games (although that in itself is perhaps a little worrying). The environments are detailed, and the faces for the characters utterly lifelike. It’s weird imagining that Joel and Ellie aren’t played by physical actors, instead being mo-capped by people who look nothing like them. That’s not to put down the actors though; the performances are phenomenal, with industry stalwarts Troy Baker and Nolan North making career best performances, and the less known Ashley Johnson being a revelation as Ellie. Of course, one of the biggest differences between the PS3 and PS4 version is the upgrade to 60 FPS, which really drove home to me for the first time just how much of an improvement it is. The ability to hit 60 FPS consistently is going to be the big challenge for this generation of consoles, with Naughty Dog showing us how it’s done.

The Last of Us: Remastered is the best game I’ve played for the PS4 so far, and as someone who didn’t own a PS3 I’m so glad I got an opportunity to play this. Believe the hype; The Last of Us is one of the most affecting gaming experiences I’ve ever encountered.res_751911e58d5f561cf3458aad33f7bc8f

Gears of War: Judgement for Xbox 360

I think that the Gears of War series is one of the most mechanically solid that I’ve ever played. Epic are one of those companies who just know how to make a game feel satisfying and fun to play, and I always enjoy a new release in the Gears of War series. The prequel Gears of War: Judgement is certainly fun, but it brings very little to the table, and fails to build upon Gears of War 3 in the way that Bungie built upon Halo 3 with Halo: Reach.

Gears of War: Judgement leaves growly voiced human tank Marcus Fenix for another growly voiced human tank, Damon Baird. Baird was always a better character than Marcus; he actually possessed a brain inside his meaty head, so he makes the transition from supporting character to lead well. Gears of War: Judgement is told in a frame narrative, as Baird and his squad, including everyone’s favourite stereotype Augustus Cole as well as a couple of newbies (whose personalities can be summed up as grumpy Russian and girl) are put on trial in the middle of a Locust attack for going against orders. As Baird and his squad explain their actions, we flash back to these events and see what happened. Judgement also contains a brief second campaign known as ‘Aftermath’, which takes place during Gears of War 3.

As much as I like this series, Sera isn’t necessarily the most fascinating or dynamic of gaming locations. Judgement is primarily set in the city of Halvo Bay; the urban setting means that we get none of the natural beauty that we saw a lot of in Gears of War 2, but we do get a few insights as to what a city of Sera may have actually been like before the Locust emergence. Still, I missed the geographical scale of previous Gears campaigns, and the environments of Judgement doesn’t feel quite as varied as in other games in the series.

There was potential for some interesting unreliable narrator plot stuff with the frame narrative, but nothing interesting is really done with it. The prequel nature means that there’s no real tension as to how the trial can turn out. The plot is very easy to forget about, lacking the interesting backdrops that the main series had regarding the nature of the Locust, instead telling quite a superficial story.

There’s little in the way of gameplay changes between Gears of War 3 and Judgement, but it’s so damn solid by now that it’s hard to complain. The gunplay is still flawless, the handling sublime. There are so many little mechanics that I love in Gears of War, but my favourite has to the active reload. It’s a small thing, but I adore it, and it’s this tiny mechanic which defines the series for me. Throughout the campaign there are optional challenges, presented as extra bits of testimony fleshing out the details of Baird’s story. These can range from the simple addition of more or tougher foes, to limitations to certain weapons, a time limit, obscuring dust or slower recharging health. This mechanic is pretty cool, and taking on these challenges is rewarded with faster gaining of stars, which are used to unlock the Aftermath campaign among other things. These stars are the other main addition, a Bulletstorm-esque kill ranking system, although Gears of War naturally can’t quite compare to People Can Fly’s earlier game for sheer insanity.

The final major addition is the integration of horde mode style defensive missions into the campaign, with the player generally given a couple of minutes to lay traps, set up turrets and collect ammo before a mob of Locust attack. Horde mode was one of the all time great gaming innovations, and it’s great to see it actually integrated into a campaign rather than kept as a discrete and separate experience.  All said though, whilst these additions are cool, but they don’t really affect the central Gears of War mechanics in any meaningful way, which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s an element of not messing with something that already works, but it can’t be denied that this is a very conservative release, and those hoping for an interesting shake up of the Gears formula will be left disappointed.

Gears of War: Judgement looks gorgeous, as all Gears games do, and the voice acting is perfectly fine. It’s a very sleek looking and playing package, with no corners cut in design, and an impressive level of detail throughout.

Gears of War: Judgement is…well, Gears of War. If you’re not a fan of the franchise, and lots of people aren’t, this game won’t convert you, but hardcore fans will lap it up. For me, I’m not so sure; as much as I like the Gears of War series, I can’t deny that I was feeling overwhelming deja-vu the entire time. It’s a great game, but not necessarily an interesting one. images (7)

Spec Ops: The Line for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Spec Ops: The Line looks like exactly the kind of game I usually pass over. I mean, the box art contains a scowling white dude holding a gun in a desert; surely that tells you all you need to know? There’s something truly sick at the core of the modern military shooter, a genre perfectly happy to scapegoat entire races into cannon fodder and treat the modern military actions of the West as  boldly heroic with no consideration for wider ramifications. Spec Ops: The Line looks, on the surface, like part of the problem. This is not the case. Spec Ops: The Line is in fact an incredibly compelling critique of the modern military shooter genre, one which undermines everything from the narrative to the central gameplay mechanics of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype to create an experience which is, in every facet of its construction, subversive.

The plot of Spec Ops: The Line is heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now, as well as that film’s literary basis, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Spec Ops: The Line picks up six months after devastating sand storms had ravaged Dubai. The wealthy elite of Dubai fled, leaving the less affluent behind to die, with the international community showing little interest in helping. Whilst returning for Afghanistan, the decorated American Commander John Konrad (subtle right?) volunteers himself and his entire 33rd battalion to assist in the relief efforts. When ordered to abandon the civilians of Dubai, the entire 33rd deserted and were disavowed by the US. Soon after, all radio broadcasts were cut off, so six months later a small squad of three Delta Force operatives, led by Captain Martin Walker, are sent into Dubai to find out what happened. Walker and his squad make their way into Dubai, finding it in a state of martial law under the control of the 33rd, with brutal justice being handed out upon the Arab residents of the city at the hands of their new American overlords.

The sand covered Dubai is an interesting setting, superficially similar to the generic Middle Eastern settings that we’ve come to expect from the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre, yet, as with most elements of this game, is in fact a satire of these locations. The Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t really hold together as a coherent location at all, with a ridiculous amount of time spent descending from the buildings, with very little spent ascending, heightening the sense of disconnected unreality to the whole thing. Dubai really doesn’t seem like a real place, becoming instead a series of linear shooting galleries, and given the context of the rest of the game this seems like this was entirely the point. Dubai therefore becomes a  symbol for the increasingly fractured mind of Captain Walker, whilst also satirising the propensity of the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre for reducing real locations to simple shooting galleries.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game which highlights the fundamental difference between narrative and story. There are many games out there with more entertaining stories to be told, but the story and the gameplay are often kept somewhat separated, and it’s a rare game which allows the fundamental mechanics of the experience to shape (and be shaped) by the narrative. Probably the most famous example of this was BioShock’s incredible ‘would you kindly’ moment, but there are plenty of other games which engage with this concept to a greater or lesser degree. If this game is watched by another, or was told in another medium, it simply would not have the same impact. This is the reason the planned BioShock film was such a bad idea; some games have narratives which only work in the medium of games, and Spec Ops: The Line is one of them. The growing disconnection between the player and Captain Walker becomes increasingly pronounced throughout, as Walker steadily transforms from the capable and competent soldier in the opening hours into a terrifying monster of a man, a monster that we nonetheless have had control of for almost the entire experience. We feel that we’ve lost control of Captain Walker; this issue of ‘control’, and the relationship between player and protagonist is a fascinating one, explored to great effect in BioShock, but even better here. So, is the story of Spec Ops: The Line remarkable? Not particularly. Nonetheless, Spec Ops: The Line potentially has one of the most compelling narratives that I’ve ever played.

During the course of Spec Ops: The Line the player will fight through 15 linear chapters of gunplay , with the odd set piece moment disrupting the flow, but not nearly as many as in other modern shooters. There’s some reward for taking your time through ‘intel packages’ spread throughout the levels, which shed more light on the story, but by and large you’ll be moving relentlessly in one direction the entire time. So, what is the actual gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line like? Well, it’s a third person shooter, and…that’s pretty much it. The combat isn’t bad, but it never feels as tight or controlled as rivals such as Gears of War. The gunplay feels oddly loose and lethargic, with a less generous auto aim than is standard in modern console shooters.

Spec Ops: The Line has many mixed reviews for one simple reason; it really isn’t that fun. Here’s the key thing though; that’s ok. There is no other medium within which fun is considered to be the only means of engagement. Can you imagine a film reviewer criticising Schindler’s List because it isn’t ‘fun?’ The primary engagement method of Spec Ops: The Line isn’t fun, but something closer to disgust, or fear. The mediocre gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line reinforces it’s narrative, and it’s biting satire of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype. Some feel that this is simply making excuses, claiming that it is likely that Spec Ops: The Line was originally intended to be a ‘taken at face value’ modern shooter, but that the mediocre gameplay required the insertion of the incredible narrative to differentiate it from other games with which it couldn’t compete. I actually think that this is probably true, but I don’t believe this takes anything away from what Yager achieved here; this wouldn’t be the first time that something great was created by accident.

Although Spec Ops: The Line isn’t necessarily visually stunning, there are some really great elements to the game’s visual design which thoroughly impressed me. The physical transformation of the Delta Squad is shocking, with Captain Walker in particular becoming a gradually more frightening figure throughout. There are moments, as the player snaps into cover, that I swear that I can see the so called ‘thousand yard stare’ in Walker’s eyes. I found these moments immensely disturbing, and very powerful. Now, he’s sometimes used as a bit of a punchline by videogame fans due to his ubiquity, but Nolan North’s performance as Captain Walker shows that he deserves his success. He delivers a truly fantastic performance as Walker throughout the game as he journeys from competent and calm professional to a barking, expletive laden animal. Captain Walker is possibly one the most fascinating video game protagonists that I’ve ever encountered , and North deserves a lot of credit for making this the case.

Spec Ops: The Line won’t be for everyone. A lot of people do only want a game that’s fun, and that’s completely understandable; I won’t begrudge people that. If you want a fun game, then Spec Ops: The Line really isn’t the right place to look. Despite that, Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most remarkable gaming experiences which I’ve enjoyed in years, and one which I imagine will linger in my mind for a long time. specops_cityvista_1920x1080

Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

The phrase ‘fan service’ has a strongly negative connotation, to the point that any usage of the word is taken as derogatory, but Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC is proof that, sometimes, giving your fans exactly what they want is the right thing to do. Given the context of the vast backlash Bioware received over the ending to the Mass Effect series, Citadel stands out as an even greater achievement, a release which understands exactly what it is that makes Mass Effect great.

Shepard, on mandatory shore leave on the Citadel whilst the Normandy is being repaired, is gifted the apartment of David Anderson whilst he fights on Earth. With a new home base in the Citadel, Shepard begins to enjoy his leave with a spot of sushi with Joker before he/she is attacked by a mysterious crew of mercenaries and sent falling into the bowels of the Citadel. Shepard brings his/her entire crew together to fight off the new threat, a surprising and intriguing antagonist. This is only the first half the DLC however, with the second half largely revolving around a party at Shepard’s new apartment, which brings back almost every surviving squad mate from the entire trilogy in one final bash.

My main issue with the Omega DLC is that we didn’t actually get any opportunity to enjoy what made Omega great as a setting, and were instead treated to a series of shooting galleries in familiar locales. The first half of Citadel looks to be the same, as the player fights their way through a few linear locations, but after the main antagonist is defeated the player gains access to ‘Silversun Strip’ the entertainment district of the Citadel, filled with a casino and an arcade (full of playable games), as well as a surprisingly well developed arena combat ring. Rather than being rushed away from the new locations as we were in previous Mass Effect 3 DLCs, the new areas of Citadel can be returned to at any point. The Citadel is a great location, and one which I’m always happy to see more of. I’d like to see a Mass Effect spin off set entirely on the Citadel one day, perhaps following a C-Sec officer, and the location is done justice in this DLC just as Omega wasn’t in its titular DLC.

Citadel takes a notably lighter hearted tone than the majority of the game. Although it takes place before the ending of the game, the Reaper threat feels oddly distant from everything that’s happening, lending this DLC as ‘Christmas special’ feeling to it. That’s not a criticism; the pressing nature of the Reaper threat forced the plot into a more aggressive and action packed narrative which I felt was to Mass Effect 3’s detriment compared to its predecessors, so a DLC which doesn’t focus upon the imminent destruction of all galactic life is actually a nice change of pace. The actual plot of the first half of the DLC is quite good, and plays with some interesting questions, but it’s the second half of the DLC as Shepard talks to his crew members, past and present, and organises a party with them all together which I truly treasure. As much as I was laughing during the hilarious party scenes, I also felt somewhat heartbroken knowing that I would never see these characters again. Whether it’s a charmingly drunk Tali, Miranda and Jack continuing their bickering from Mass Effect 2, Grunt and Wrex trying to ‘out-Krogan’ each other, I was never less than entirely charmed throughout. Even characters who have died make appearances through audio and visual messages. Citadel offers an absolutely perfect conclusion to the trilogy, offering us a moment of happiness for us to treasure, a perfect balm for the weak and unsatisfying ending to the main game. There are just so many wonderful, beautiful moments in this DLC, which made me realise how truly special this cast of characters Bioware created are.

The shift of focus away from shooting is appreciated here, although the shooting is still fun, and culminates in one of my favourite boss fights in the series. There’s a fun scene in which Shepard and a companion infiltrate a casino, which involves no shooting at all, which given the action focus of Omega is a good change of pace. The new mini games on the Citadel are fun, as is the arena combat. Bioware made a lot of effort in this DLC, more than they really needed to, making Citadel really seem like a labour of love rather than a cynical marketing ploy.

The new environments look wonderful, with the decadent gaudiness of the Silversun Strip offering us the sort of location we haven’t really seen much in the Mass Effect series. We glimpsed this sort of thing in the DLC which introduced Kasumi Goto in Mass Effect 2, but we were never able to immerse ourselves in it as much as we are here. The real coup Bioware pulled here was the voice acting return of almost every major character, alive or dead, with the only real exceptions being Legion and Dr. Chakwas. All of the characters are as wonderfully performed as ever, with the return of relatively famous actors such as Seth Green as Joker, Tricia Helfer as EDI and Yvonne Strahovski as Miranda coming as a pleasant surprise. Every character is given a time to shine; I particularly enjoyed our favourite hipster Prothean Javik, who delivered some of the funniest lines. The thought of how much Bioware must have spent on the voice cast for this DLC easily makes the asking price worthwhile.

Mass Effect 3: Citadel is an essential for anyone who cares about the Mass Effect series. Skip all the other DLCs and you won’t miss much, but I implore you not to skip this one. Citadel is the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, and offers the catharsis which the ending failed to offer. Thanks to Citadel, when I think of Mass Effect 3 it won’t be with bitterness and disappointment; this is the most essential piece of DLC that I have ever played. ME3_Citadel

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

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