The Annoyingly Capitalised "TNA Wrestling iMPACT", on the Equally Infuriatingly Capitalised "iPhone".

The few positives first: graphically it’s basic, but competent, and there’s a decent roster selection.

The negatives are everything else.

There are things that are out and out missing, like match commentary, or pretty much any sound effect at all. There’s no in-match music, and I hope you like the first fifteen seconds of the theme song as you’ll be, bafflingly, hearing it on a ear-achingly annoying loop in every menu, including the create-a-wrestler mode.

The otherwise reasonable CAW mode hints at the other problem with the game, as you select the two (yes, two, as in one more that one) moves that your wrestler can perform in the normal course of things. Two? C’mon, folks. I suppose it’s accurate for Hulk Hogan, but it’s lobotomised for everyone else.

Things are no better in the ring, with no atmosphere, sluggish movement and super-dodgy timing leading to missed moves aplenty. Which, actually, might not be a bad simulation of an actual TNA match, but it makes off a disastrously poor video game.

Marvel at the number of times you ponderously attempt to stomp on someone halfway through a standing up animation. Wonder at the number of times the AI decides the best thing to do is run away from you, off the ropes, and let you get a free drop kick in, which has such dodgy hit collision you can practically perform on the other side of the ring and still see the other dude fall over. Thrill to DDTing a guy ten times in a row because, as Pulp teaches us, there’s nothing else to do.

We’re only scratching the surface here, folks, but if you want to waste your cash on a catalogue of disappointments then this is the game for you. This is an embarrassment to all concerned, and I worry about the number of 5 star reviews this had. They must be fraudulent, as I cannot fathom the mind of anyone who could claim this is competent, let alone enjoyable. Even at the current sale price, it’s a total rip off.

Dreadful.

Mac Half-Life (Very Beta)

Towards the tail end of January, alert Mac-based Steam users may have noticed a surprising addition to the Library section, depending on what they’d bought from the formidable PC selection. Above the Half-Life 2 entry, which surely any self-respecting gamer has obtained, there now lurks a Half-Life (Beta).

This is, just as it says, a (very, apparently) beta version of the original Half-Life game using the original Half-Life engine, the pride of 1998. This is not to be confused with the more-recent-although-hardly-new release of Half-Life: Source, a recreation of the original game with the Half-Life 2 Source engine. That engine being the pride of 2004. God, I’m so old.

Nope, this release is aims to be true to the original to a fault, replete with the blocky models, sparse voice acting and quite astonishingly low resolution textures we’ve come to know and love. Quite why this has come to pass is something that no-one seems to have the low down on. Perhaps it was simply a coding exercise to port this to OSX and Linux given to the interns at Valve that co-incidentally marks the 15th anniversary. At any rate, on an otherwise miserable weekend that saw me unfit for anything more worthwhile, it appealed enough to my nostalgia centres to give it a bash.

Now, to be clear, this was more of a stroll down memory lane thing than me looking for a serious challenge. I was more interested in seeing if I remembered the game rather than giving it a serious playthrough, although the initial office sections seemed just as I recalled. Mechanically, it’s just the same, so I decided to hammer through the rest of the game with all speed, primarily by cheating.

I mention this in case it has any bearing on the bugs uncovered, although perhaps the first bug I found is that most of the standard console cheat codes aren’t hooked up to anything. Sure, you can type ‘god’ in as often as you want, but it’s not getting you any closer to being a deity. Likewise, ‘give’ stubbornly refuses to give you anything, however ‘no target’ works quite well against anything other than a few boss roadblocks and gun emplacements.

With the game’s enemies reduced to standing still and staring blankly at you, the game’s rather quicker to get through. Turns out I didn’t remember the game quite as well as I thought, having completely forgotten the ‘Blast Pit’ section, although the rest of it up until ‘Surface Tension’ was broadly familiar.

However the game proceeded to rather fall apart at this point. After getting past the Apache hovering around the dam, we reach a section where we crawl through some of the game’s many pipes (seriously, around 96% of this game takes place in an air duct, inside a pipe or crawling on top of a pipe) to reach a minefield guarding a storm drain. My first, route one attempt at crossing the minefield did not work so well. Ka-boom.

Anyway, clicking to reload puts you back in the pipes, near to the exit and just before an area loading trigger. Unfortunately now going through this load point causes the game to crash, and I’m dammed if I can find a work-around. You could skip ahead and load the next area with a console command, but you arrive there naked and itemless, and with no way to ‘give’ yourself anything (including your iconic HEV suit ‘n’ crowbar combo) it’s not much of a fun experience.

In desperation, I figured I’d reload a save from a while back and see if the same fault occurred. Firstly, it did, but secondly and rather more bizarrely, the save file had developed a kind or precognition. By which I mean that even though I was starting back near the start of the ‘Residue Processing’ chapter, it had handily pre-killed all of the enemies and pre-collected all of the power-ups I’d picked up in the previous run-though. Travelling without moving, wheels within wheels, plans within plans.

So, yes, what I’m getting at is that the Beta label is quite well deserved in this instance, and perhaps it’s best to leave this until the rest of the kinks have been worked out. Admittedly, I didn’t spend too long looking for a fix, in the main because I was getting dangerously close to the rubbish Xen sections, and I have better things to be doing with my time. Well, by which I mean Kingdoms of Amalur, which I at least hope is a better thing to be doing with my time.

An Even Longer List Of Annoyances From Mass Effect 3, Indicating That I’ve Thought About This Entirely Too Much

I suppose I should have left this game series for a little while, given my extended bout of niggle-picking, to allow a process of healing, or at the very least amnesia, to occur. However, thanks to the fine people at Lovefilm dropping the concluding part to the Mass Effect saga through the door far earlier than expected, I thought I’d plough on and stick a stake through the franchise.

Wiser people may not have bothered, but like Magnus Magnussen, I’ve started, so I’ll finish. For the most part, the game is a further refinement of Mass Effect 2, meaning a great deal more crouching behind space walls and firing space guns at space monsters in the same professional, clinical space way that every other quarter-way decent cover-based shooter does. But in space. I’ve little further to say about the mechanics of this over that of Mass Effect 2, other than to say it’s all very competent and disappointingly bland.

I should interject at this point, before the Diatribe Engine cranks into full roar, that for all of my whining I was still happy enough to sink 40-odd hours into doing everything the game offered, and to see out how the character (and indeed entire civilisation) arcs play out. While you can (and I will) take issue with some of the storytelling, and perhaps it’s not how I think it could have most satisfyingly wrapped everything up, we must stop and recognise that across the three games, this series has the most fleshed out and complete characters, history and universe that we’ve seen in videogaming.

You could perhaps make the case for the Elder Scrolls games being on a par, but to my mind a lot of their world history is flavour text rather than anything integral to the adventures. In Mass Effect, the wounds from conflicts settled long before humanity even bothered their first Turian are still evident, and the fallout from these believably shapes the universe you explore.

Now, it’s rather less convincing that all of these ramifications have to be sorted out over the course of this game by one dude in a spiffy spaceship making a couple of mildly inspirational speeches after shooting lots of things from behind low alien walls, but a sense of closure is nonetheless welcomed.

The broad strokes of the story arc ties up pretty well. The details, however, are often bafflingly clumsily handled, from the very outset. At least you don’t die at the start of this game, however you do start under house arrest for reasons that are never really made clear. Unless, of course, you’ve bought the DLC pack where you perform the actions that put you there. I’m not a knee-jerk anti DLC kinda guy, really, but when it starts deleteriously affecting the storytelling of the core game its firmly over the limits of acceptability.

DLC as a way to extend the life of the game or tell additional stories, such as The Shivering Isles pack for Oblivion, are perfectly fine, indeed that pack would almost pass muster as a standalone game. Zero day DLC packs, however, can get fucked. It’s not something extra that designers have slaved over after a game’s release, it’s content created for the game launch that’s been deliberately ring-fenced in order to nickel and dime more cash from eager punters. It’s predatory, annoying and I’ll have no part of it.

At any rate, your incarceration is brought to a swift end as the Reapers make their long-threatened, often warned, always ignored arrival on Earth and begin to ruin everyone’s shit, taking a curiously long time to do so given how we’ve been banging on about how powerful and unstoppable they are. This allows us to make an escape to rally up some forces to take back Earth, while the Reapers leisurely eat cities at a rate determined only by our process through the Priority-level missions. This is a game, after all.

Your first real hint that the writers may be over-extending themselves comes with the escape sequence, at one point stumbling onto a small, scared boy hiding in a ventilation shaft who scrambles away rather than accepting your help. It clumsily screams ‘recurring motif’, and indeed as we depart the planet we see him scamper onto a rescue shuttle only for it to be burned by the Reapers. Oh noes, the horror, etc. I suppose this was done in an attempt to drive home the gravity of the situation, especially as most subsequent updates on the situation on Earth offer few more details than “it’s bad”.

If it stopped there, that wouldn’t be too dreadful. Ham-fisted, but forgettable. Obviously, it isn’t. After a few missions we return to the Citadel to speak to the ever-helpful Council, who have yet to do anything of any use or indeed display one scintilla of sense over three games. On returning to your ship, and I mean immediately on pressing the ‘open’ button at the dock airlock, we are transported to a black and white forest, surrounded with shadowy wisps chasing that their small boy.

I ask you this – name me one game with playable dream sequences that wouldn’t be improved by removing them. This is no exception and, joy of joys, there are multiple occurrences. Besides, would it have killed you to at least show us going to sleep?

Anyway, the bulk of the game at least allows a measure of vengeance against those Cerberus pricks I so railed against in the last write-up, as they seem hellbent on interfering with our attempts at alien-wrangling for reasons that are only vaguely defined, but whatever. If it allows me to mindlessly slaughter hundreds of footsoldiers, I’m happy.

Indeed, we seem to spend more time fighting the bafflingly well funded renegade human faction than the Reaper footsoldiers, which seems a tad strange. Speaking of Reapers, there’s a few new models of them to contend with, and if they weren’t either dumber than a bag of hammers or slower than a wheel-clamped Sinclair C5 I imagine they’d be quite tough to deal with. As it stands, the only difficulty the present comes from the massive stack of hitpoints they hide behind, putting your ammo (grrr, ammo) stocks in more danger than your person. I can only imagine the “fun” this would present on the Insanity difficulty mode.

Speaking of lazy video game fallbacks, there’s a disappointing reliance on cut-scene superpowers and idiocy, with your enemies getting the former and you the latter. If I never see one more purposefully unwinnable boss fight again, I will be a happy man. It’s particularly galling after spending a few minutes taking on this supposed bad-ass, drilling him full of assault rifle holes while remaining untouched yourself only for him this to trigger a cutscene where he gets the better of you, and then have him gloat about beating you (he didn’t!) and the aftermath of characters disappointed in your failure (I didn’t!) and the repercussions (there shouldn’t have been any!). I wish they could find a better, less obnoxious way to drive the plot forward.

The particular irritant in question here is a Cerberus assassin, Kai Leng, who is a useful character to talk about inasmuch as he typifies the sloppiness in storytelling. Apparently, Leng’s a legendarily powerful bad guy. We know this because we are told this numerous times before we meet him. However, he’s no exception to the general axiom of show, don’t tell, and we aren’t shown him doing a damn thing worthy of his attitude.

Perhaps if you’ve read the Mass Effect books that, as best as I can gather, the character is drawn from, there might be some reason to give this stupid, emo-looking harlequin some credibility, but there’s none given in Mass Effect 3. I suppose I could read the novels, but the quality-to-drivel ratio of game novelisations is perhaps worse than game to film adaptations, so I think I’ll let that opportunity pass me by.

It seems that, rather sensibly, no-one on the face of the planet was fond of the mining sub-game / exploration replacement in Mass Effect 2. Surprisingly, this has been seized on as an opportunity to make it even more frustrating. We’re not looking for curiously unsellable mineral wealth this time round, just “War Assets” – various units or McGuffins that will help the preparations for the strike against the reapers. And we don’t need to spend hours probing planets, as the scans can be performed from the solar system maps, and cover a wide enough area that it’s not uncommon to envelope two planets in the range for discovering things.

This sounds like a major improvement, but there’s a slight wrinkle. Most of the areas we’ll be scanning are in Reaper-infested space, and scanning alerts them there baddies. Should the alert levels raise too high, they’ll show up and Game Over you, unless you run away, and they remain on patrol until you go off and complete a mission. Given that in many of the systems, if you were to search the entire system you’d be using ten to twenty scans, and that the maximum number of scans I’ve ever gotten away with in a system without raising an alarm is three, you can see that this isn’t adding up.

So, it seems that the designed method for finding these assets would be to draw up a grid search pattern for each system, scan two or three blocks, mark them off, repeat for every single system in the game, then do a mission and repeat until your grip on sanity finally slips and you wind up in one of those news articles ending with “before turning the gun on himself”. Lunacy. Alternatively, we’ll consult Gamefaqs and end around this stupidity.

The reward for all this ridiculous tedium, incidentally, is that a number on a console very marginally increases.

That’s a little reductive, but increasing your available War Assets to the maximum, and I’m skipping over the multi-player bonus multipliers that can fuck right off, thank you, makes very little difference in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it contributes to “the best” ending, but not in much more than a few different line of dialogue, as best as I can gather. It’s completely overwhelmed by the more direct actions Sheppy takes, which does rather render the whole thing a bit of a pointless time-sink.

Ahhh, the ending. It’s already caused enough Internet Outrage that I think there’s little point in delving into it, and I’m trying not to make this too spoilerific. To be honest, the bruhaha is overdone, but I have some sympathy for the complaints. Again, it ties into the general storytelling problems of the broad strokes being there, but the details are more clumsy than I’ve come to expect from the writing team.

There’s certainly an issue with what the game clearly thinks to be the “good” outcome, which is far more morally complex than it makes it out to be. It’s also reflecting a theme that’s frankly only hinted at in this game, and not at all in the previous instalments, and if this was planned to be the canon ending from the start it really needed to be more interwoven with the actions and outcomes of the universe.

Actually, I rescind my earlier comment. The problems aren’t that the details are clumsy, the problem is that the details simply aren’t there. The three galaxy redefining options essentially give you a different colour of lightshow, and the sequence then rather unceremoniously ends. No details given at all about the aftermath or implications of these actions. Perhaps it’s leaving the way open for more stories in this universe, but it’s a massively unsatifying way to round off over a hundred hours of investment in the games.

Is it bad enough to require apologising and promising free DLC packs to explain themselves? Well, I’d say not really, but Bioware themselves apparently disagree, so who am I to argue?

An Inexhaustive List Of Things That Infuriate Me In Mass Effect 2 Now That I’ve Thought About Them.

I enjoyed this game well enough when playing it, but given a few days distance to let it percolate through my mind, I find myself nearly apoplectic with incandescent fury, or at least slightly peeved. Here are a few of the reasons why. Much of this was prompted by a similar rant over at Arcadian Rhythms.

There was a tremendous amount of PR hay made at the outset of the series about your decisions in the first game effecting the rest of the trilogy, and you character having a consistency across all the games. Odd then, that the first thing you do on starting a new game is reset your character. Even if you decide to keep your original character appearance and character class, there’s no reason for your alignment (your paragon / renegade scores) to be reset.

I don’t mind, really, completely changing all of the combat mechanics. If you want to re-jigger the powers and weapons to make the hiding behind endless low walls and shooting over them a little better, knock yourselves out, although that’s always been the absolute least of the reasons I liked ME1. Just do it silently and we’ll all be polite and not draw attention to it. Don’t, however, then try and write a bafflingly stupid Codex entry trying to retcon these, because it’s insulting. Every gun in the entire universe was remodelled based on a Geth technology apparently uncovered in the first game, but never seen in the first game, in a mere two years? Do one.

While we’ve got our retconning shoes on, what in the hell is going on with Cerberus? The bulk of the interesting sidequests in ME1 were based around establishing Cerberus as an unalloyed, inexcusable evil. It’s at least one game too late to be making excuses for them, and forcing us to accept that they’re just a misunderstood gang of folks wanting to save mankind, jus’ like you, Shep!

Let’s run down what we learn from the first game. Cerberus killed an Alliance officer, tried to build an army of Thorian creepers and rachni, destroyed a settlement by turning the colonists into husks, and as I’m playing with the “Sole Survivor” background, was directly responsibly for the most traumatic event in my characters life (at least, prior to what unfurls during the events of the game), killing my entire squad through Thresher Maw proxy.

My Shephard would have put a bullet in the head of your erstwhile new buddies Miranda and Jacob, and probably also himself just to deny Cerberus the satisfaction. Not even being able to mention the Sole Survivor deal to any of the Cerberus apologists is a really glaring, frustrating plot hole, of the sort that really throws doubt on how much anything I do influences anything in the game that Bioware might deem narratively inconvenient.

This might seem like nit-picking, and it is. However the more you keep having to scratch these itches the more it pulls you out of the game, and reminds you that you’re sinking forty odd hours into pushing electrons around a screen rather than doing anything worthwhile with your life.

It hurts immersion, and that was what I found so spectacular about the first game. Not the combat mechanics, and to be honest not even the main narrative. It was the well detailed characterisation, and the feeling that there’s a massive, well thought out, cohesive galaxy to explore with all the attendant alien races and mysteries.

Mass Effect 2 is about crouching behind low walls and firing over the top of them. Occasionally alien low walls, to be sure, but it’s mainly interested in running between walls, crouching and firing over the top of them. Exploration is purely there to allow mining, and that is hardly a positive.

There were certainly things wrong with the planet exploration in the Mako of ME1. The solution was, apparently, to delete them entirely and replace them with an orbital mining ‘game’. I would have loved to have been present at the meeting where it was decided that the best way to increase the Mass Effect 2’s fun quotient would be to hold down a trigger while slowly moving a cursor around until the controller vibrates, then pulling another trigger. I would bring a hammer to this meeting.

All sense of scale has gone. The universe has shrunk in the wash. I understand that there’s constraints on these things, but look at what happened to the Citadel. Events at the end of ME1 notwithstanding, it still ought to be a massive galactic hub, complete with the unwieldy navigation and endless running between sectors of the first game. Now it’s, what, three shops, a few staircases and a bar?

Everywhere else is just as bad, with any exploration or poking around ‘streamlined’ and minimised in favour of getting you back out, hiding behind walls. There’s some rationale for it, I guess, but the capital of the Krogan homeworld really ought to consist of more than ten rhino-people standing around a fire in an old oil drum, like some intergalactic hobo convention.

Characterisation has broken completely in Mass Effect 2. The Shephard I controlled in the first game would not be working with Cerberus, but there’s no choice about that – which requires some breathtaking, unbelievable head-sand interfacing from the Intergalactic Parliament, or whatever they’re called, and a complete abdication of the only responsibility the Earth Fleet Dudes, or whatever they’re called, have.

Sheppy aside, what in the hell was the point of convincing Garrus to go back to C-Sec if it’s discarded in one line of dialogue? How does the first game’s socially awkward blue archaeologist turn into the galaxy’s number 2 intelligence agent in two years? Why would I want to buy that story separately?

I’m pretty sure all of this talk of decisions from the first game effecting the second is based entirely around the bit characters from side missions who can be spoken to, and I have to pretend to remember what petty dispute of theirs I solved a couple of years ago, which make no impact on me at all.

At points I was running low on credits to purchase the upgrades littered around, so figured I would sell off some of my mineral reserves, surely impractical to hold on a small starship. Except, of course, you can’t, because there is no functioning economy in Mass Effect 2 to allow selling of the most valuable commodities in the universe. Hmmph

Okay, the more I think about this game the less I like it, so I’m now going to stop thinking about it and crack open the Deus Ex: Human Revolution disk Lovefilm have sent me.

The Last Remnant …to the end(ish)

Here’s an oddity, at least in the realms of my game-playing habits lately. I purchased a game, from a real-life bricks and mortar “shop”, as I believe they are known, and put that game inside of a game-playing device within 24 hours of the transaction, and played it for a length of time that could not be rounded down to zero in any statistically significant sense. That’s unusual, but should not necessarily be taken as an indication of quality. Regardless, my Mastermind-esque creed of “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” means that The Last Remnant becomes a prime candidate for my intermittent series of game review / journal things.

Purchasing The Last Remnant was a decision taken with almost no consideration whatsoever, which may turn out to be a mistake. Still, as part of a two for ten pound promotion with a game I actually wanted, it also wasn’t a decision that necessarily required much consideration. Indeed, by providing two paragraphs worth of blog material already, it’s gone a long way towards being considered good value for money.

My knowledge of the game was limited, more or less, to the blurb on the back of the box, and a nagging feeling that as I’ve not heard of it, it’s probably not worth hearing about. However, given that I more or less bury my head in the sand concerning all game releases these days this is not an unfamiliar state of affairs. The one undeniable fact garnered from the marketing blurb is that it’s a Japanese RPG published by SquareEnix, the 400lb gorilla of the Japanese RPG world.

I have an ongoing fascination with SquareEnix, as they’re a company that is continuously massively successful, despite making RPGs that are, in my estimation, barely playable, let alone enjoyable. Of course, these days they’re a monolithic publisher doing everything up to and including the oft-lauded Deus Ex franchise, but my feeble brain pathways still struggle to move them out of their Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest box. Statistics and sales figures would suggest I’m an outlier in this regard, but rather than do anything sensible like “stop buying their games”, I persist with the notion of picking them up cheap and attempting to work out what’s so appealing about them, to some folks at least.

Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

Well, now that I’ve got my flimsy rationale for playing this over, say, the untouched copies of Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age out of the way, let’s dive in.

Day One

Egads! If there’s one thing that makes me run screaming from most Squeenix JRPGs I’ve tried, it’s the puzzling insistance on making the player controlled character a barely pubescent, screeching frat boy irritant. It’s afflicted most of the modern Final Fantasy games I’ve played, and in The Last Remnant the improbably named Rush is another such annoyance. If this doesn’t gets less annoying over time, I may have to rename this series …to the end of my patience.

At any rate, in our introductory cut scenes we’re introduced to Rush and his sister Irena on a remote, peaceful looking island, watching a holo-video-thing from their absent parents. They’re world-famous, respected researchers into mysterious, ancient artifacts called Remnants, massive constructions of great power that can be controlled and “bound” to individuals. The two kiddywinks barely have time to consider their situation before some wallopers fly in on a funny looking bird thingy, later revealed to be one of them there Remnants, and kidnap Irena.

There’s your motivation in a nutshell, chasing after your sister, trying to uncover who took her and why. One jump cut later and we’re with the youthful David, Marquis of Athlum, leading his army against a group of monsters. The battle is cut somewhat short when David unveils Operation Overwhelming Force, uncorking a Remnant under his control, effectively a tower-block sized instagib laser cannon. Rush stumbles into this mess, and over the course of a brief spot of tutorialising David and his generals agree to investigate this kidnapping scenario and get some answers.

Now, in terms of wandering around towns, talking to people in pubs for information, buying new kit and such this is barely any different from any other RPG you can imagine, so I’ll skip over that. Well, perhaps one exception, but I’ll get to that in due course. The battle mechanics, on the other hand, are so different from the norm that I’m not even going to attempt to describe them until I get a better handle on them. I hope this occurs soon.

Day Two

Scooting through a few of the missions, which largely involve tracking down a few ultimately dead-end leads while still attempting to teach you the byzantine gameplay mechanics, leads us to uncover a few more areas to travel to, including the neighbouring town Celapaleis.

Principle storyline concern so far is that those behind the kidnapping may be linked to the Academy, the powerful body responsible for researching remnant artifacts, and also the employers of Rush and Irina’s parents, giving the whole abduction thing a patina of legality. Suspecting political machinations afoot and bristling under the demands of Celapaleis’ envoys, David plays things safe and starts taking a more circumspect look at the situation. Cue annoying ranting from annoying lead character, who decides to strike out on his own before, gratifyingly, realising he’s being a dick and besides, would have no chance on his own before he’s even left the city. Maybe this guy’s not irredeemable after all.

Speaking of leaving town, here’s the difference between this and a lot of other RPGs. There’s no real “overworld”, in the sense of traipsing around a world map to get between towns and ‘dungeons’. For the sake of brevity, let’s define a dungeon as any location you have to wander around hitting enemies with sticks until you find something/someone to advance the main story, regardless of whether it’s actually a dungeon or a ruined castle or a woodland glen or a marshmallow factory or anything else.

To move between locations, you simply tap the little used ‘back’ button on your Xbox 360 joypad (or alternative system equivalent) a couple of times to bring up a world map, and move a whacking great arrow over where you want to go. Easy enough, I suppose, and cuts out some of the busywork. After certain conversations or events, more areas become available to travel to. More unusually, tapping back once while in a town brings up a location map that’s used to travel, effectively, between town streets.

This is particularly weird in comparison to behemoths like Fallout 3 and Oblivion, where you will wander around the world and into town often with nary a loading screen to be had. Perhaps this is a limitation of the Unreal Engine used in the game, as it hasn’t helped with are the loading times which aren’t exactly snappy even after installing the game to hard drive and verging on intolerable from disk. Perhaps it’s another convenience aimed at removing time taken wandering through the backstreets to reach the shop or tavern you want to visit.

I suspect the latter, given some of the other oddities. For example, early on you meet a character in a tavern asking to deliver a letter to someone who’s wandered off into a monster filled area. Ever the helpful chap, you agree to deliver this. Without even a chance to prepare yourself, the screen fades to black and you’re deposited in the dungeon, directly in front of the intended recipient. You talk to him. He takes the letter. Everything fades to black again and you’re back in the tavern talking to the quest giver and claiming the cash reward.

While this has removed a lot of ultimately pointless button presses for me, it’s a pretty weird experience. It’s essentially removing the gaming elements from the game, to the point that it might as well just have given me the money without bothering about the whole letter idea. Admittedly at that point I might as well be entering numbers in a spreadsheet, and Excel ain’t no game. It’s striking a peculiar balance between convenience and gaming, and I’m not altogether sure if I like it or not.

Day Three

I suppose I’ve dodged this for long enough. The battle mechanics in The Last Remnant are unique, to my knowledge, so I have to applaud the spirit even if I remain unconvinced about the execution. On engaging an enemy wandering around the dungeons, you are presented with something that’s halfway between the usual fight/spell/item/run selections from RPGs since the dawn of time, and something more akin to a tactical RPG, or perhaps even a variant of the Total War franchise.

You, and whatever lackeys you have hired in the Guildhalls of the world, are lumped into something called a union, although really “squad” or “battalion” would be a less confusing term. The composition of these unions is subject to various limits, for example at the moment I am limited to nine fighters in total, with a maximum of five in one union. I can form up to three separate unions. There are two types of hirelings, leaders and soldiers. As you’d expect, each union must have at least one leader, who typically have better statistics and abilities than soldiers, and currently I’m limited to a maximum of four leaders.

More oddities abound. Members of your unions share a pool of hitpoints, and you can only give them relatively vague instructions on how to attack. While the bog standards ‘Attack’ will have them all run at your enemies in an attempt to bash them over the head, the usual other options of ‘Attack with Combat Arts’ and ‘Attack with Mystic Arts’ will result in your chaps, depending on their abilities and seemingly the phase of the moon, performing a selection of either special melee strikes or magic attacks.

This is decidedly odd. It’s like giving a general idea of how your character and those nominally under his command should behave and watching how it pans out. It would be like Sonic the Hedgehog presenting an option at the outset saying “Run right, jump as required” then watching a demo of the game until completion.

Now, if this does wind up as the greyed out option on the screens imply see you controlling at least five squads of sixteen soldiers, micromanaging each individual’s actions each round would be about as dull an experience as I can imagine, so I can sorta see why it’s built this way.

However, we’re coming straight back to the issue of convenience versus gaming. Final Fantasy 12 was criticised in some circles for having an option to take essentially all decisions in battle away from you, and leave it up to the AI. The game was basically playing itself, which led people to question what the point of that was. That was, however, an option that you did not have to avail yourself of. There’s no such option here, and I do wonder how this will play out over the coming days.

Day Four

Hey! Where do you think you’re going? We’re certainly not finished with explaining the game mechanics. Well, I say explain. Parts of it remain fairly opaque to me, but we’ll do what we can.

Let’s give a worked example. Say we’ve got two combat unions under our control, and we decide to take on, let’s say, five groups of oversized cockroaches. The groups start off scattered around a minimap that looks on first instance to have more tactical significance than it really does. We set our two groups to attack the nearest cockroach cluster to them, and they charge off towards them.

Our first group run headlong into their target and start bashing them up. Both parties enter a slightly mis-named state called a Deadlock, meaning that they’re engaged with fighting each other. For the sake of argument, both groups survive and remain Deadlocked.

Our other group was heading towards their target, but another closer, faster bunch of enemies engaged them first – an Interruption. They Deadlock and start hitting each other for the turn. After that, another group of enemies attack, and as you’re still engaged with fighting something else, they get to “Flank Attack” you, a state requiring less explanation than Deadlock. They get a damage bonus against you.

Of course, you have another flank to be engaged on, and if yet another group attacks it’s from behind, oo-er missus. This “Rear Attack” will hurt even more, again, oo-er missus. If another group attacks, it’s termed a Massive Strike, presumably to avoid copyright infringement with a Bristol based trip-hop outfit. So that’s all reasonably understandable. It’s often frustrating, as you intend on unleashing a series of devastating attacks on a dangerous group of enemies only to be Interrupted by a low value target, “wasting” your attack turn and potentially leaving you open to Flanks from those more dangerous opponents.

I say frustrating, because there seems to be no way to combat this. There’s no obvious way to control your position on the battleground, so it doesn’t seem like there’s any skill to this mechanic. And if there’s little or no control you can exert over this, you have to question why they make so big a point of it. There’s massive text overlays coming up on screen every time these Deadlocks or Flanks et al happen, and given that there’s very little that you can do about these situations other than the default RPG Plan One of “kill everything”, it’s just giving the trappings of a tactics system without having any actual tactics system.

Oh, yes, and the remaining major state, Raidlock, makes no sense whatsoever. The text describing it does, admittedly. A union that’s not physically close to another union can enter a special Deadlock state called a Raidlock, nominally by hitting them with some ranged magical attack, getting a damage bonus. So essentially, covering fire. Makes sense, except every single time this happens to me, seemingly at random, at most one of my team has been using a ranged attack, and the rest run up and bash them with swords. So, to be clear, a Raidlock is a state of Deadlock for units that aren’t physically close to each other but that are nonetheless physically close to each other.

People have claimed that the battle system in The Last Remnant is too complicated. Actually, the problem is far worse. It’s a battle system with all the obfuscated seeming of complication, without actually having any at all. It promises tactics and delivers helplessness, and that’s plainly not satisfying.

Day Fuck This Noise

We’re probably up to about Day Ten or so, in reality, with the intention being to backfill in more information on the combat mechanics and a few other things I’ll get to, but I’m calling a halt to this game on account of it being more of an exercise in perseverance rather than anything I’m getting any enjoyment out of.

The last word I’ll have on the combat system will be kept relatively brief, mainly because it’s a horrible idea that you can turn off. As your squads go through the motions of attacking and defending (for the twelve millionth time), there’s an opportunity to get an enhanced result by, joy of joys, a quicktime event. There is, as we all know, no game that features a quicktime event that could not be significantly improved by removing the quicktime event, so it’s heartening to see that this can be turned off in the options. Or rather, falling back on your character’s base stats to automagically see whether you hit or miss.

The point, I suppose, was a last ditch attempt to inject some feeling of control or involvement in the battles, which never stop feeling like a spectator sport rather than something you’re nominally directing. If your solution to a lack of action is to dump endless, excruciating gauntlets of quicktime events, you know you’re getting into “nuke from orbit” territory.

So, combat-wise, it’s a brave experiment and I’m glad I’ve played it enough to form an opinion on it, but it’s a failed experiment. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve would up having my parties wiped out because while it’s obviously necessary to heal up this round, my only options are to carry on a doomed frontal assault or some such nonsense. I wouldn’t mind giving up control quite so much if I didn’t feel I was giving up that control to a bumbling poltroon.

Given that any RPG is likely to be heavy on the combat, and given the usual Squeenix focus on grinding this is particularly so in The Last Remnant, it’s not going to work out very well for the game if the combat is, at its best, a total drag. So we’ve already worked out the primary reason to punt the game into the long grass and find something else to play. There are many others.

Marginally annoying, rather than outright frustrating is the resource gathering. Components, ores, herbs and the like are found either in shops, from vanquished enemies or from points around the maps, which brings us onto Mr. Diggs. With no explanation whatsoever this puzzling little steampunk mole thing attaches himself to your group to enable you to gather more resources, which means watching his canned ten second animation another four and a half billion times over the course of the game. It’s not particularly impressive first time around, and grows rapidly more grating each subsequent time. The same can be said of all the attack animations, really.

The voice acting, for the English version at least, is reassuringly dreadful. The main character is outright annoying, with the supporting characters swinging between ‘bland’ and ‘somehow worse than the lead character, baffling as that may be’. Of particular note is the bloke lumbered with David, Marquis of Athlum, who sounds like a cross between a bad David Bowie impersonation and every accent in every Guy Ritchie film thrown in an accent blender.

Perhaps the most obtuse gameplay mechanic of The Last Remnant is that it’s very often not remotely clear what you’re supposed to be doing to further the plot, and there’s also no indication that you’re well prepared enough to progress further. I came very close to knocking this on the head after, ooh, four days or so, after growing tired of the side-quests that were taking up a great deal of time while presenting no significant challenge. I wandered up to the plotline mandated fight with a Mr. “The Conqueror”, who smeared me into a fine paste in short order. Aah, I realised, this game mandates grinding. Which was a massive red flag.

Sure, I was happy doing the side-quests in Fallout 3 and Oblivion, but not because I wanted to farm experience points to get past a boss. It was because they were, for the most part, interesting stories on their own terms, and enhanced the feeling of being in a living, breathing world. There’s nothing like this depth shown in The Last Remnant, and nothing like motivation for doing them.

Even putting the wider game world to one side, the main storyline doesn’t have the attraction required to put up with the grind required to progress it. What starts off as a simple, relatable tale of a missing family member rapidly devolves into world-spanning political powergrabs featuring characters we have barely seen, let alone know anything about. The supposed Machiavelli behind all of this is so obviously guilty from the first time we clap eyes on him I suppose there’s no point building up any subtle, deceptive plots, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss it.

Without liking either the story or the game’s mechanics, there’s clearly no point going any further, or longer. And I could well have gone longer – despite pumping something like forty hours into it, the point I gave up was the seemingly wide-accepted arsehole of a boss battle at the end of the first disk, which seemed very much like I’d have to firstly go back to a save from hours ago and level up more, and even then face a battle based more on luck than wits. I’m sure this timesink would have doubled from the second disk, but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed any of it.

The battles are repetitive, drawn-out and tedious, and the lengthy loading times add to the feeling that this is more a game you are invited to watch, rather than play. It still looks pretty good, I must admit, which is to its credit, but hardly its salvation.

There’s very little of interest in this game, for most folks. It may appeal somewhat to the more obsessive-compulsive crowd, or those who take interest an in studying and breaking games systems on a more cerebral level. Basically people who can understand the term “min/max character build” without requiring a flowchart.

I certainly got my money’s worth out of The Last Remnant, going by the time taken, but I’m not altogether sure I got too much enjoyment from it. I had far more fun subsequently going through Arkham Asylum, in far less time. If longevity is your only rationale for judging a game, I suppose The Last Remnant scores highly. By any other criteria, it ought to be avoided.

Alan Wake …to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much attention to. Before buying anything else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The following is a rambling log of thoughts, experiences and opinions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

As an aside, I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and promptly forgot about it. My memory’s not so good these days. As a consequence this tidied up version may be a little light on details, but I think it gets the spirit of the game across quite well.

It wasn’t long after the completion of Max Payne 2 that rumours surfaced of a new game from Remedy, and if nothing else Alan Wake cut a mean trailer, back when you could call the Xbox 360 and PS3 ‘next-generation’ machines with a straight face. After it’s lengthy gestation period it was unleashed upon a world that seemed largely to have forgotten about it. Now an Xbox 360 exclusive, it received almost universal acclaim in the press, although these days sadly this is more an indication of the quantity of advertising placed with the press than of quality of the game.

Regardless, it’s the only game that willingly describes itself as, at least in part, a survival horror that I had the slightest interest in playing over the last decade, so let’s plunge into the world of thriller writer Alan Wake as he investigates the disappearance of his wife during their holiday in the remote town of Bright Falls.

Day One

So, a few hours in and I’ve completed the first, half tutorial episode and most of Episode Two before my interest waned. My initial thoughts are that someone’s been spending a hell of a lot longer on the concept of the game rather than the mechanics.

While the concept of nightmares within nightmares seems interesting enough, the sections of trudging through forest occasionally stopping to shine a light on some lumberjacks before shooting them isn’t exactly setting my world on fire.

Given the way the narrative’s going, I suppose there’s no point picking up on any of the plot holes that occur fairly frequently, given that the “J.R. stepping out of the shower” scene towards the end is pretty clearly signposted.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the character models, specifically the granite-like fizzogs on display when characters try desperately to emote. For a game that’s been in development since, I believe, the beginning of recorded time, you’d think they’d have come up with something better looking than a launch title. The ‘actors’ seem to be walking around with a stick up their collective ass, but on closer inspection they’ve really got more in common with the sticks.

Why am I trying to collect a hundred coffee pots, by the way?

Day Two

I find myself concluding Episode 2, and trudging my way through Episode 3. So far, still an awful lot of traipsing through woods, shining flashlights at lumberjacks. For a game that took five years to create, I had figured that there would be a touch more variety shown in the mechanics. I suppose there’s not a vehicle to drive between the locations for the bouts of flashlight wielding, and some poltergeist thrown objects to shine a torch on, but this is hardly redefining the boundaries of video gaming.

I suppose I shall play on for the sake of continuing the story, but so far it’s doign very little to draw me in to the narrative. I think I’m being put off by the continued references and namechecking of Steven King, a writer up with which I shall not put.

While we’re at it, if this game is supposed to be narrative based, would it not have been a sterling idea to get a few decent writers in? The dismal writing is showcased not only in some dreadful, grating voiceovers, but also in the hamfisted, clunky manuscript pages I have no interest in reading, let alone scouring the levels trying to find. I’m afraid the Cheevo points alone are not that strong of a draw for me to engage in arbitrary gameplay extension.

Day Three

A radical departure for the game in Episode 4, as we find ourselves traipsing through a garden and a farmyard, shining flashlights on lumberjacks.

I sure hope this game has something unexpected and special for its ending, as if it goes the way it’s been threatening to go for the first half of the game then the storyline as developed in this chapter would completely undercut any building of tension.

That said, I still struggle to work up any interest at all in the plot and find most of these daylight cutscenes to be an excellent opportunity to play Slingo on my iPhone. I’m multi-tasking.

I’m growing more than a little bored by the recurring contrivance of stripping your weapons and flashlight at every available opportunity. Once might have been fun, but this grows tiresome quickly

I had wondered why I was finding your occasional in-game companion Barry so irritating, given that his characterisation is far less annoying and pretentious than our nominal hero. Eventually I placed it as residual hatred for Max Payne 2‘s Vinnie Gognitti, sharing as they do the same voice actor. You will remember Vinnie, of course, as the ‘star’ of the stupendously annoying Captain Baseball Batboy suit section that was so obnoxious I’m half-convinced it was a parody of all computer game escort missions.

Day Four

The fifth chapter of the games sees a radical departure from the previous formula, consisting of a few arbitrary equipment strippings followed by running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. Oh, hang on, that’s not actually a radical departure at all.

Perhaps I’m not being fair to Alan Wake. After all, there’s is a short section set in town where we have to take a needlessly circuitous route through buildings because the quick way is ‘blocked’ by a three foot fence that has become unscalable, somehow. That’s not at all annoying, nor is Barry’s accessorising of his puffy jacket with Christmas lights.

I have to give this game some credit. For being composed entirely of lazy writing, filler action sections, pointless platforming puzzles, unlikable characters and sub-standard acting I’m really only finding it a trifle dull rather than teeth-grindingly dreadful.

One oddity that occurs to me, seeing as it shows up in this chapter more, perhaps, than any other. There’s what amounts to this games’ equivalent of landmines scattered throughout, that are dealt with by — what else — shining a torch on them. As I’ve yet to encounter them at the same time as being attacked by the Taken, they’ve reduced to the role of another very minor roadblocks on the narrative path.

The most questionable aspect of their inclusion is really there visual design, as they look for all the world like piles of haunted horse manure. Terror incarnate, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Day Five

I take it all back. The thrilling final chapter radically ups the ante of game mechanics with a exhilarating ‘push a cart out of the way by tapping the “A” button’ segment that really ties the game together. It’s repeated a few times, but that’s okay. It remains just as brain-meltingly non-awesome as it does on the first time.

Actually I have been doing a grand dis-service to the variety on display in Alan Wake. There’s also the frequent stops to start up diesel powered generators by tapping the “A” button a few times. Finally, video games have delivered on the promise of the old ‘interactive movies’ of the 1st gen CD-ROM games. It’s just like being in a movie!

Other than these, the bulk of the level consists of dodging poltergeist-inhabited oil drums and running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. The final boss, such as it is, at least presented an interesting visually break from the norm, but mechanically isn’t much more than another object dodging session.

I suppose I was a little disappointed, if not overly surprised, to see that the game did not end with a satisfying, neat conclusion. I suppose at best I can credit it for not overtly flashing up a billboard telling me that “THE NOT-AT-ALL DREARY TALE OF ALAN WAKE WILL CONTINUE THROUGH AN INTERMINABLE SERIES OF DLC FLEECINGS”. Hey, at least the first one’s free, right kids? Well, free to folks that bought the game, but seeing as I’ve only borrowed Alan Wake from my good friend Baron Sir Lord Craig of Eastman I’d better not redeem that token, so it’s really all over bar the finger pointing.

Finger Pointing

I think by this point I’ve made myself clear that I didn’t enjoy this game. It’s very far from being the worst thing I’ve played on the Xbox, and if I’m being fair there’s not really any one aspect of the game that falls below competent.

However, basic competency is the bare minimum that we’re demanding of a game, and Alan Wake doesn’t go a hell of a lot past this. The gameplay mechanics, and for the most part the entire gameplay engine might well have been lifted wholesale from Max Payne 2. Or perhaps Max Payne 1. Amongst its peers it feels clunky and stodgy, and I’m not buying the excuse that you wouldn’t expect a writer to dive around like an action hero either.

Perhaps I would, had this been more immersive. It’s trying to be, I’ll grant it, but if your lead character (and by extension, you) are represented by a whiny, spoiled brat of a character suffering inordinately from first world dilemmas then it’s not going to be remotely effective.

If you don’t care about the character, you’re unlike to get into the narrative, so its shortcomings become all the more obvious. I suppose spoilers are less of a concern this far from the game’s release, but nonetheless I’ll leave it at saying the story, like all of the Steven King works it charmlessly apes, is as stupid, annoying and obnoxious as the game’s lead character.

The best I can say about this game is that I played it all the way to completion, and it didn’t feel too much like I was only doing it for the sake of this article. Without the dangling carrot of another few thousand easily ignored words of content for my corner of the internet, I’d still have finished this game having started it – which is rare for someone with limited time for gaming.

That’s hardly the best recommendation for the game, and it does rather make me wonder if I’ve played a different version to the game so glowing reviewed in the glossy magazines and major websites. It was hailed as a leap forward in storytelling for games, and for it’s pacing. This is straight-up mental. It’s a games that screeches to a halt and throws cut scenes at you, with the barest of attempts at linking or enhancing any narrative revelations in the gameplay sections.

There’s very little atmosphere built, and the attempts at scares fall very flat. Had this game appeared a year or two after Max Payne 2, it would have been a revelation. As it stands, it’s a very real disappointment and barely worth playing, and certainly not something I’m going to recommend.

Eternal Legacy

At some point I’ll get through all of these photos from China. This is a statue in Tiananmen Square, dedicated to the People’s Army, if memory serves. While there’s a number of folks who will insist that there’s no point taking photographs in the harsh mid-day sun this was taken in when there’s perfectly good light coming, maybe, in the golden hours, that’s pretty rubbish advice if you’re not going to get an opportunity to go back wherever you are in a hurry. It’ll be a while until I’m back in China, and if I have to go under my own dollar, perhaps I never will. This was taken with the sun directly behind the statue in an attempt to do something interesting with the hand dealt to me, with limited success as you can judge from the above.

Readers of a certain age and predisposition may remember the infancy of videogaming in the home, with unsuspecting “serious computers” such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC-20 being abused into displaying some primitive ancestors of the modern gaming multimedia extravaganzas we take for granted on our Xboxes and Playstations. While Atari might have been a little more strict about intellectual property rights, given that they owned a good chunk of the good arcade games at the time, other formats were the rip-off equivalent of the Wild West.

Cue a massive number of barely, if at all, disguised versions of Pac-man and Space Invaders and the like, often of wildly varying quality. A simpler, more innocent time, where people shared and shared alike, or at least when game companies didn’t have legal teams larger than their development teams.

I’m apparently not the only one nostalgic about this era, or reckless enough to base a company’s release schedule entirely around quite blatant idea theft. Gameloft have been making games for mobile phones for as long as they’ve been capable of running the rudimentary Java-based games that seemed fabulous at the time, and as barbarous as Speccy games in retrospect. The release of the iPhone, however, seems to have turned them into full time rip-off merchants.

You’d have to be incredibly charitable or completely dishonest not to feel that there’s a massive degree of similarity between N.O.V.A and HALO, or the Modern Combat and COD: Modern Warfare games, or Starfront and Starcraft, or as we’re interested in here, between Eternal Legacy and Final Fantasy. In particular, Eternal Legacy draws on the graphical styles of Final Fantasy VIII and the plot of Final Fantasy VII, so I suppose if you’re being astonishingly generous that counts as innovation.

I’d get a little more shirty about Gameloft’s outright clonery were it not for the generally high quality of all of these cover versions. While N.O.V.A and Modern Combat are shadows of their inspirations on the massively more powerful consoles, they’re still very competent, fluid games and arguably as close as anyone’s come to making great FPS’s on the Apple iThingys. Eternal Legacy in some respects one ups the others mentioned, by being a better game than the Final Fantasies it apes.

Of course, this is coming from someone with a very low tolerance for Final Fantasy games, so factor that in your calculations of whatever that’s worth. Astrian, a spiky haired fellow carrying a ridiculously oversized sword in no was resembling FF8’s Squall and his buddy, in no way reminiscent of Zell, are rebels attempting to steal an oppressive government’s shiny crystal trinkets, Varsh Stones, the source of power in this world, which is the first hint that you’re playing a game heavily indebted plotwise to FF7. In fact, I’m going to stop pointing out character similarities to FF8 and plot similarities to FF8, as otherwise we’ll be here all day. Please just assume that any character you play is a barely disguised version of someone from FF8 and most of the plot’s a homage, shall we say, to FF7.

Mechanically, the game also shares elements with the FF series, although by extension it shares elements with pretty much every RPG with turn based combat. There’s the usual combinations of physical attacks, element based attack magic, stat altering buff/debuffs and assorted healing items and spells, which different characters will use to differing levels of effect depending on their abilities. There’s also a rough analogue of Limit Breaks, and a stat/effect boosting system thankfully far less tedious than FF8’s Junctioning, as Varsh Fragments found throughout the game can be attached to the weapons and armour you use, granting either access to spells that could not normally be utilised by the character, extra defence or attack, and so forth.

So far, so familiar, and the overworld sections aren’t going to blow your mind with their originality either. It’s the usual RPG deal of wandering around a town talking to people, either getting a quest or receiving information that involves heading somewhere else and fighting your way their through a variety of whacky enemies and beast that seem to have no particular storyline reason to be getting up in your grill. At least, thankfully, there’s no random encounters, as the enemies are clearly seen wandering around and thus can occasionally be avoided completely, and you can perhaps sneak up on them. Why this isn’t the way all RPGs deal with this is beyond me. I can almost accept it as a limitation on earlier machines, but there’s no excuse for it in the modern age.

So, there’s a brownie point for it, but there’s a number of less successful decisions made in the game. The combat and customisation systems are far simpler than in the games it apes, which to my mind is entirely appropriate and laudable for a game designed to be played on the move. As the iDevice format is more conductive to playing for short bursts as a time filler rather than full-on gaming sessions, shortening the normally interminable 40 hour RPG grind to a more compact 8 or 9 hours fits quite well.

Fits well for me, at least. Given that JRPGs these days seem to make their hay based entirely on how ludicrously complex and padded they are, what’s fine for me may not be so good for the intended core audience. The plot’s suffered a little under the baton of time compression, taking a few sharp right turns that could leave you flatfooted if you were hoping to actually care about the storyline or characters. It also presents a novel twist on the ‘early doors unwinnable battle with eventual boss’ trope, as you face off against the game’s main antagonist, kill him with ease, and are immediately taken to a cutscene showing you on prone, defeated and at said antagonist’s mercy. Somehow. Buh?

There’s a few mechanical annoyances that should really have been fixed remaining in the version available as I write. When you equip a new weapon, the Varsh fragments do not automatically transfer over to the new weapon from the old, which means another fiddly trip to the menu system. That I can deal with, but the menu system in combat is a complete pain in the ass when trying to navigate the lengthy item menu. Or at least, it’s lengthy by the end of the game which is about the only time you’ll ever need to use healing items.

You see, the main problem I have with Eternal Legacy is that it presents no challenge whatsoever to anyone with the slightest experience of these sorts of games. I had wondered if there was some sort of bug in the game, as my characters were very quickly levelling up to silly degrees. Turns out that’s a function of the shorter game length, but between the stats boost gained and the free healing gained from levelling up there’s practically no danger of dying, at least until the game pulls one of it’s somewhat frequent dick moves, splitting the party and leaving you without anyone that has a healing spell. At which point we’re often relying on healing items, and the cumbersome menu for selecting them that can take so long to get at that you might be in danger of dying more through menu inefficiency than through lack of tactical nous.

It’s not game-cripplingly unusable, and to be fair I struggle to see how else the menus can be organised. However, even this problem stems from the core problem – a lack of challenge. The menu becomes unwieldy because the game is massively generous with dispatched enemies dropping healing potions. Apart from this meaning you’ve no excuse no to go into each battle in top shape, it also leaves you with a ridiculous number of items in your inventory, making finding particular things more difficult. By the time the game ended, I had something like four hundred spare healing thingys. I could sell most of them to a trader, but in the absence of a “sell all” button that meant tapping ‘sell’ something like four hundred times, and, well, screw that noise. It’s not as if I needed the money for anything, as the few items that the merchants sell were easily affordable from the money dropped during the normal course of the game.

Disappointingly, for a relatively short RPG there’s still a bit of arbitrary gameplay padding as you return to previous locations for pretty poorly laid out reasons. Thankfully, it’s pretty rare, and there’s no need to spend hours in one locations grinding out either level gains or draw spells, mechanics from FF8 that still give me nightmares to this day.

Okay, perhaps it’s a little slapdash in places, and I’m not sure if it’s going to completely satisfy the JRPG / Final Fantasy loving crowd that it’s aimed at. But it’s a reasonable mobile facsimile of familiar concepts, and it certainly kept me coming back to it for those eight to nine-ish hours with only relatively minor complaints. Look at it this way – if you had told the younger version of myself playing that there Pacman rip-off on the Speccy all those years ago that they could play something of this quality and scope on a mobile phone, he’d have been blown away, at least once you had further explained the concept of a mobile phone to him. I am very old, remember.

And all this for a price less, in absolute terms, less than the budget game releases of the day, even before you take inflation into account? Lunacy. However, we’re not judging Eternal Legacy in comparison with Chuckie Egg, we’re judging it amongst its App Store compadres. There are a few more polished RPGs that I’ve seen, but most are either opting for a SNES-y, cartoony, Zelda-y look, or have more in common with the Western, Oblivion-style RPGs. Nothing wrong with either approach, but it’s left a gap in the market for something a little more modern and JRPG-influenced to exist, and Eternal Legacy is a very credible game to fill that gap.

It’s currently £2.99 in the App Store, a trivial amount of cash for such a game on any console, but thanks to the unusual metrics of the system it’s in a more expensive tier than most games. It’s certainly worth that much, but perhaps you may want to wait (as I did) for one of Gameloft’s frequent sales to knock that down a little before taking the plunge. At fifty nine pence, it’s damn near as good value for money for a game as I’ve ever had. There’s also a free demo version, should the prospect of parting with less than the price of a mediocre cup of coffee concern you greatly.



Fallout 3… to the end

My lame product light tent

Yes, I have been using eBay quite a bit lately. How could you tell?

I love Fallout 3. This is essentially a spoiler of the next several thousand words that I wrote about the game for the now deceased previous iteration of the blog. I never quite got round to finishing and polishing it, but have now done so for your edification. Bon appetit.

This is a look at the game, and primarily the DLC expansion packs. As you might expect, here be spoilers, so if you’ve not played it and want to preserve the surprise, look away now.

FALLOUT 3

As it happens, I’d already played Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic FPSRPG to the conclusion of the story, including pretty much all of the side quests, over a slightly worrying seventy plus hours the best part of a year ago. You could make a halfway decent case that, like its roughly contemporaneous buddy Bioshock, it’s a game that’s essential draw is more the ambience and story of its setting rather than the mechanics of the game itself.

While, obviously, as that seventy plus hours would attest, I eventually enjoyed the game an awful lot, there’s a certain degree of clunkiness to the actual playing of the game that’s slightly less polished than the writing, character design, soundtrack selection and atmosphere created by the masterful blend of these elements would perhaps deserve.

There are a few issues I had that prevented me from initially getting behind this game from the outset, although in the main they’re both defensible from a design and consistence perspective, and also largely eliminated by progression of your characters stats. Still, seeing as I brought it up, might as well run through them.

The Gamebryo-based engine used by Bethesda is clearly a close cousin to that used in the similarly enjoyable time sink Oblivion, and so shares many of its… let’s say endearing character flaws. Admittedly, given that versions of the Gamebryo engine have powered everything from Civ 4 to Pirates! to Zoo Tycoon, mentioning the Gamebryo engine is hardly descriptive in and of itself. However, “Gamebryo” is such a dreadful name for an engine I feel like mentioning it frequently. Gamebryo. Gamebryo. Gamebryo.

Anyway, back on track, the point I want to make is that this version of the engine walks like an FPS, talks like an FPS and quacks like an FPS, but it’s actually an RPG. The disconnect became obvious on combat, especially at low experience levels. As your accuracy and damage dealt by, let’s say a 9mm pistol, is determined by your appropriate character abilities. As you would expect from an RPG. But this looks like an FPS, and it’s very easy to think of it as an FPS, so it’s a little odd to point a gun directly at someone’s head, pull the trigger and miss by a mile. It’s just as odd to think that by moving a couple of points around in the character build, the same bullet from the same gun would have dealt more damage. Why? Because I’d be more proficient at pulling the trigger?

Once you put your RPG hat back on, this makes more sense, but it’s a striking early doors disconnect that can be quite frustrating. As your skill with guns (or any other trait, for that matter) improves, the problem, if indeed it is a problem, goes away. Which is nice, and appropriately and expectedly RPG-ish. Which is what we’re playing after all, even if it doesn’t feel like one on occasion.

Annoyance the second – I would contend that there has never been a game with a degrading weapon gameplay mechanic that would not be immediately improved substantially by removing the degrading weapon gameplay mechanic. I see nothing in Fallout 3 to revise this contention. There’s something approaching a storyline justification for it, certainly, with the Capital Wasteland’s scavenged, aged, damaged equipment clearly needing maintenance due to the decades of degradation since the ruinous nuclear war.

Mechanically it’s a awkward, fiddly, pointless bit of gameplay padding in a game that’s hardly short on length in the first place. It means, at best, tooling around in menus to fix things up, and at worst grinding out encounters to gain money to pay someone to fix your kit so you can grind some more. It serves no useful purpose other than to loop a bit of gameplay, and there’s so much more fun to be had either in the quests or simply exploring the wastes that it’s an unnecessary distraction. It also leads to baffling, nonsensical inventory decisions, like having to lug around two inconveniently heavy Gatling Lasers to use one to fix the other. Rather than, say, carrying a few lighter spare parts.

Let’s conclude this gallery of nit-picking, because it’s largely irrelevant. Again, seventy plus hours. Fallout 3 is a massively enjoyable and absorbing game that was a delight to play, in large part to the solid storyline that came to a very definite, satisfying and appropriate conclusion at the end of the final main storyline quest. Which brings us to why we’re here, really.

DAY ONE – BROKEN STEEL

Oh, look. A DLC pack has arrived. In the time between finishing the ‘real’ game and now I’ve picked up a few of the downloadable extensions and it seems sensible to play them through before digging in to Fallout: New Vegas. The obvious starting point would be the expansion pack that allows the game to continue after completion of the main quest, Broken Steel.

The first problem, really, is that it exists at all. I have no real issues at all with extending games through DLC, especially if it’s a substantial game in the first place. I do have a problem with the DLC pissing all over the story of the game. An ending that most likely, at least if you we’re playing as the goodytwoshoes I always play as, with a fitting poetic, heroic sacrifice that will be told of in tales and legends.

With Broken Steel installed, this noble end becomes a two week coma, which pretty much completely pulls the impact from it. Boo! I can’t help but wish that there was a more elegant way of working this into the plot, although it does at least plug the strange logic holes in the final quest. Why am I sacrificing myself when I may have a companion escorting me who either is not affected by radiation or actively healed by it? Although again, this hardly makes for the climactic finale, but I’m complicit in this. If I didn’t want more Fallout 3, I shouldn’t have bought more Fallout 3, so let’s move on.

Essentially, having kicked the Enclave forces hard in the goolies at the water purifier, the Brotherhood of Steel have spent the last few weeks ‘mopping up’ the remnants of their forces aided by their massive stompy robot. Why don’t we help with that? Why not, indeed. If we discount the two short sidequests dealing with issues on escorting a water supply caravan, the meat of the expansion comes with three Enclave bashing operations, ending with a rampage through an entirely new and pretty extensive airbase, through a massive Star Wars sandcrawler-esque tank ending with calling down a right ol’ missile strike from an orbital platform.

This all sounds far more impressive typed out like this than it does to play it, unfortunately. It’s in no way bad, you understand, but it’s not quite as epic as you might hope for. The behemothian landcrawler in particular looks really cool from the outside, but on the inside is much the same collection of nondescript rooms and familiar enemy models as the rest of the game. It’s not even as though you can feel that you’ve dealt much of a blow to Enclave operations, as despite destroying all of their bases and leaders they still show up around the world map as random encounters.

Unavoidably, given that this is precisely what it is, Broken Steel feels like a tacked-on, minor mission set that lacks spectacle, although I suppose at least it’s trying. If these missions were the extent of what I’d purchased, I’d be heading straight to the nearest flaming torch and pitchfork emporium. However, there’s a few more additions that give this an alternate reason to live.

Perhaps recognising that there’s probably more than a few people who hit the level cap long before the end of the game, after installing the expansion you can now level yourself up to the arbitrary number of 30, rather than 20. Given that by the time you get into the higher levels you can pretty much kill any enemy in the game by looking in their general direction, there’s also a number of new, harder, better armed beasties and soldiers to shoot up, and a few new weapons to shoot them up with.

Admittedly, they’re mainly palette swaps of the existing enemies and weapons, but if that was going to be something that bothered you you would have given up on the main game halfway through and certainly not bought the expansions, so we’ll let that one slide.

Overall, Broken Steel feels less like an addition to the base game as it does a licence to play it some more. If you haven’t finished up the side quests, perhaps because it felt a little pointless if you’re already at the level cap, this may give it some meaning.

More Fallout 3 is not going to be a bad thing. Thus, Broken Steel and indeed all of the expansion packs are not a bad thing. The question here is if Broken Steel is enough more Fallout 3 to be worth the cash. For the missions it provides, it certainly isn’t. As a way to break the level cap and provide a little more challenge at the higher levels, especially going forward with the other expansion packs, then it is. It’s decent value, but don’t expect to be blown away.

DAY TWO – OPERATION ANCHORAGE

Next up in this arbitrarily ordered playthrough, the Alaska themed variation on the Fallout movement. Ignoring the preamble, this expansion ditches the familiar ruins of the Capital Wasteland for the almost as spartan but significantly whiter Anchorage in a pre-war army computer training simulation based on kicking those irascible Red Chinese communists out of America.

Obviously this is a bit of a departure. The selling points of the blurb make it sound like it’s not just the setting that’s substantially different. “Command squads of troops!”, it breathlessly exclaims. “Cobblers!”, I respond, but I suppose we’ll get to that in due course.

Differences to the mechanics are present, though. As it’s a simulation, there’s less ‘realism’, in as much as your guns don’t fall apart after four discharges. There’s no corpses, as it happens, your simulated foes digitally decomposing instantly with no opportunity to loot them. Weapons are picked up at either various pre-programmed points or from your camp quartermaster, and ammo and health rechargers are stumbled upon as you progress through the level.

The missions are reasonably interesting, albeit somewhat brief and slightly hamstrung by having the most interesting by far mission on the front end, leading to the same kind of ‘petering out’ feeling that was present throughout Broken Steel.

The hook for the last mission appears to have been based on the touted squad mechanics, and while it’s admirable to bend the engine into doing things it typically does not, it’s pretty much fallen flat on its arse. Squad command with a decent level of granularity and varied orders is hardly new technology. It’s been a mainstay of series such as Rainbow Six going back to days before the launch of the original Xbox.

This is not squad command with a decent level of granularity and varied orders by a long chalk. Before heading out you can pick the composition of a three/four man squad who will accompany you. You can tell them all to attack the main mission objective, or to hold their position. If you tell them to hold their position, they’re quite prone to just running in anyway, blasting away randomly and generally ineffectively.

Basically the squad, and the whole gameplay mechanic, is utterly useless.

That said, if you’re playing this at higher levels, it’s easy enough to single handedly take down the entire Chinese army. This is a problem across the entire game, as even with the odd beefed up enemy and the regular enemies that I believe are supposed to scale in level along with you by the time you’ve reached level 20+ you are massively powerful, armed to the teeth and have an effectively infinite amount of health. Without particularly trying, I finished this article with something like 200 stimpaks and an amount of ammo that might as well be endless.

Operation Anchorage turns out to be an odd fruit. My common complaint across all of these expansion packs is that none of them feel like an organic, intrinsically connected part of the main game. Here that’s entirely intentional, but that in no way makes it any more satisfying.

Again, it’s perfectly enjoyable to play through, and the reward at the end of it is a particularly nice bit of equipment. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, and the variance in the game mechanics gives it a unique if not completely successful twist. If you can pick this up cheap, or if you own it as part of the Game of the Year edition, it’s well worth playing through. As an 800 point, standalone expansion I have to question whether it’s worth the dough, and the answer to that question has to be no.

DAY THREE – POINT LOOKOUT

Point Lookout makes a particularly poor case for playing itself. The quest pops up prompting you to head off and meet the captain of a paddle steamer offering passage to the titular swamplands. Seek your fortune! Although by this point I have more money than I know what to do with, and an armoury of loot that I could sell off for another five to six times more than I know what to do with.

The main impetus for heading out of the Capital Wastelands in this instance appears to be that it’d be a waste of 800 MS Points if you didn’t, which is fiscally sensible if not narratively compelling. Having done so, you’ll find a map that looks far more worthy of being an expansion pack.

While the additional grounds covered in all we have spoken of so far are fairly compact, Point Lookout offers a sizeable sprawl that would be a decent enough size for most full games. This seems promising.

As one of my favourite elements of Fallout 3 was simply wandering around looking at stuff, this would seem to be the expansion pack for me. If you want to get much enjoyment from the game, then I think your mindset will have to be somewhat similar. The main questline of the expansion starts off with helping a ghoul defend his stately home from an onslaught of wild tribal attackers, then infiltrating the tribe to work out why they’ve got it in for him. You’ll discover an unlikely source of the problem, and seeing as you are the only competent person in this timeframe, I guess you’ll have to sort it out. It’s a little underwhelming, and seems somewhat quaintly parochial compared to the impact you’ve had in the Capital by this point.

The side quests are more compelling than the main one, discovering the trail of a now long-dead Chinese spy for… well, no reason other than it being diverting.

The world of Point Lookout feels big, but it also feels empty. There’s only a few people to talk to over the expanse, and while by nature the world of Fallout 3 isn’t exactly bustling, Point Lookout is a complete ghost town by comparison.

There may not be many people to talk to, but it does rather crawl with sub-human, Hills Have Eyes-esque hillbilly mutants, which is kinda fun. Certainly it’s more original than most of the added enemy character models. It’s slightly odd inasmuch as due to the aforementioned levelling, some skinny little freak with a lead pipe can smack you for as much damage as a hulking great supermutant can, but I’d be complaining more if they didn’t.

Regardless, there’s no massively challenging situations for the fully power-armoured and well-armed explorer, and unless I’ve missed something groovy no particularly neat unique loot to be had, so while Point Lookout is an interesting enough diversion I can’t give you a particularly cogent reason for splashing the cash on it.

DAY FOUR – THE PITT

While it’s less expansive in scope than Point Lookout, at least The Pitt gives me a reason to care about it. Approached by a representative telling you of their struggle against a group of Slavers who have taken over the ruins of old Pittsburgh, now simply The Pitt, it’s time to free the people or take the place over, depending on your alignment.

There’s certainly a lot less to do in The Pitt, certainly if you compare it to Point Lookout, but it does seem that your actions are having a far greater impact on the world and the people in it, which becomes at least part of the point of Fallout 3.

As part of infiltrating the Slaver organisation you’re going to be disguising yourself as a slave, which means ditching your hard-earned gear for a while. While this verges on being a cheap trick, it gives more of a twist and bit of a challenge than the rest of the expansion packs.

The missions themselves don’t seem to make the most of the set up, to be honest. It seems that there ought to be a lot more sneaking around and duplicity, and so when the second mission of the quest is a mere fetch quest, hunting round an area killing more raiders and sub-humans and collecting steel ingots, it’s something of a disappointment.

Still, on reflection it’s no different to how most of the rest of the quests in the game are handled, and on balance no less entertaining than the rest of them.

Arguably, you’re doing more of absolute in-world importance in Broken Steel than you are here, but the clean break of theme makes this feel like a story with a start, middle and end rather than a continuation of something that was supposed to have ended, but hasn’t, and still hasn’t by the end of the missions.

The Pitt isn’t the largest of the expansions, but it’s probably the one that hangs together best and yields the most satisfying outcome. Again, I can’t really comment on the notable loot, as it had long since ceased to be an issue to the invulnerable walking deathtank that was my character by this point, but I do have a soft spot for the unique Auto Axe called the “Man Opener”. Purely because of the name.

Again, and not to sound like a broken record, I have to question the worth. In comparative terms if nothing else, the twenty odd quid I wound up buying the full game for yielded seventy odd hours of compelling, satisfying gameplay. Even in what I consider to be the best of the bunch so far, this will last about five hours if you wring everything from it, and far less if you do the minimum possible to get through the missions. The value isn’t quite the same.

DAY NOT HAPPENING – MOTHERSHIP ZETA

If I want to fight aliens in a FPS/RPG style, I’ll wait for XCOM to appear. Based on the experiences above, I’m not seeing 800 points worth of value in what’s promised, so that fiver or so went towards Fallout: New Vegas instead. So with that, it’s all over bar the finger pointing.

FINGER POINTING

The enjoyment to be gleaned from these expansions is rather like the secret to great comedy. By which I do not mean talking about garlic bread, but rather the timing. If you think of these missions, Broken Steel aside, as being additional optional sub-quests to be undertaken for fun while still working through the main plotline, then they are a massively worthwhile addition to the game that’s highly recommended.

If you’ve already played and beaten the game, the arguments are less clear. Sure, as mentioned previously, it’s more Fallout 3, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. However it’s none of the best parts of Fallout 3, so these do feel rather like trying to recapture a former glory and falling somewhat short.

If there’s one area where it’s unarguable that the expansions provide value for money, it’s in the sheer number of enemies. Before starting the expansions I hadn’t unlocked the “kill 300 people” achievement, by the end I’d butchered closer to double that number. Which is impressive in simple volumetric terms, although it did rather feel like a last ditch attempt to inject difficulty and extend content rather than anything particularly well thought out.

Getting a handle on what these expansions really cost is, thanks to the smoke and mirrors approach of Microsoft’s pointlessly arcane Points system, a little obtuse. If you’re buying in bulk, 4200 Points will cost around £35, so for the four expansions we’ve spoken of that’s equating to about £27. That’s actually more than I would consider spending on a full game these days, and the expansions certainly do not deliver twenty seven quids worth of entertainment by any metric at all.

However, if you are coming to the franchise fresh buying the “Game of the Year” edition, which includes all of the expansions for ~£25 is an absolute no-brainer, compared to the £10-15 quid for the plain vanilla Fallout 3. Alert readers will have noticed that now, admittedly very far from the release of all of the above, the digital downloads prove to be ludicrously terrible value compared to the physical item.

It would be entirely wrong of me to suggest that the best thing to do, on the 360 at least, would be to rent the two disks that contain the expansions we spoke of, install them to the hard drive and play them at your leisure, and certainly would not be the route I chose. Oh no. Not I.

True Grit, Bayonetta

looks a bit like the TARDIS, of you squint

Ahhhh, back to a wonderful world of mild frustrations and minging vending machine coffee. I hardly feel like I’ve been away. If nothing else, I’m certainly no longer used to dragging my carcass out of bed while the hours on the alarm clock are still in the single digits. Is it just me, or does that look like Doctor Who has just landed in Renfrew?

I’ve no wish to turn this into an entirely movie related blog, but there’s not much going on just now in the world of politics or suchlike to rail against, so I suppose I can only really talk about the things I learned yesterday, half of which involves movies.

The first thing, which came as no surprise having been forewarned, is that the Xbox360 game Bayonetta is no good whatsoever. I assume the PS3 version to be equally dire. It’s only to be expected, coming as it does from the same deranged mind that gave us Devil May Cry, another long running series that steadfastly refuses to be any good whatsoever after multiple iterations.

Bayonetta is essentially Devil May Cry, but with tits. And a cutscene obsession with languishing on the main character’s bahookie, which I hear was supposed to be ironic.  I’d perhaps believe this if there was an ounce of wit or charm shown in the entire game, or at least the four hours or so I could be bothered playing, but there simply wasn’t. The cutscenes soon become so teeth-grindingly annoying that I immediately skipped them, or at least all the ones that didn’t have annoying quick time events  – all of which are the press ‘X’ to not die type, all showing the character doing the sort of cool stuff it’d be nice if you were to be able to do in the normal game.

Said normal game involves, exclusively, mashing buttons at random and hitting the dodge button when it looks like someone’s taking a swing at you, assuming you can see them given the camera’s propensity for suddenly becoming interested in architecture on the opposite side of the town square from the hordes of axe wielding angels which you’re apparently killing for some reason that I assume was made apparent in one of the cutscenes I skipped. It is massively repetitive and boring. Don’t want.

So, the rest of the evening was spent watching the original 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit, in anticipation of the upcoming Coen Brothers version.I won’t get into the details, I think, as I have podcasts to edit, but it remains a likeable film. The narrative is straightforward enough, with a stoic daughter attempting to secure justice on her father’s killer, hiring Wayne’s U.S. Marshall with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later to get the job done.

It’s still enjoyable, with one of the more interesting performances from Wayne I’ve seen, although admittedly I’m no expert in the Western genre. It suffers somewhat from the introduction towards the end of a completely different (but far more potent) villain than we’d been hunting for the rest of the film, but it’s really only its age that betrays True Grit. It’s all a little too Technicolor and twee, especially given that this ought to be a powerful and emotive tale of revenge. Even although many people get their lead salad based comeuppance, it’s all a little sterile especially in this age of, appropriately enough, gritty realism.

I trust the Coens will deliver a darker take on the material, which will suit it well. Some stories just aren’t supposed to be largely cheery, and look so colourful and bouncy.

Bioshock – to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much attention to. Before buying anything else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The following is a rambling log of thoughts, experiences and opinions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

Bioshock should need little introduction, so I shall limit the formalities to saying that it is at heart an FPS with a limited weapon / Jedi-like ability upgrade system that allows for some degree of customisation to your player as the game progresses. The setting itself grabbed the most headlines, however, with a once prosperous undersea city run as the logical extension of relentless, government interference free capitalism that has seen it go from a position of strength to almost falling apart. You must stumble around trying to piece together what’s happened and.. well, we’ll take that as it comes, shall we?

Day 1

I believe I’d played Bioshock for a grand total of two hours, after having it sit on a shelf for a year or so. The mechanics of the game seemed initially repellant to me, and I wasn’t hurting for other games to play. Still, time to take another look at it.

I seem to remember the biggest brouhaha being made over the graphics in Bioshock. If we’re going to be all technical about it, the graphics aren’t actually all that brilliant, even for the time, at least on the basis of the first couple of levels. The texturing is somewhere between adequate and dull, and the character models aren’t all that complex or interesting.

What people meant was that the style of the graphics was worth making a brouhaha about, which also ties into the audio design, the scattered diaries of people going progressively more insane and the always compelling trick of dumping you somewhere dilapidated that was once idyllic, without knowing why it’s fallen so far and so hard.

I’m actually enjoying this a lot more than on my first dalliance, perhaps because I’m more open to taking in the ambience of the piece rather than just thinking about the game mechanics, which at the moment are little advanced over any of the ten-a-penny FPS’s littering the 360 landscape.

Let’s see if this view holds up to a more extended play.

Day 2

We take a relaxing run through the fisheries.

While I’m trying to forget that I already know the twist in this little narrative’s tale, that aside I’m enjoying the gradual uncovering of the the conflict between Rapture creator Andrew Ryan and his rival, the underground crime boss cum hero of the people Frank Fontaine, with Ryan’s increasing obsession and paranoia seeming to be the catalyst behind the collapse.

Doesn’t really explain why there would be so many diaries scattered around the place so randomly, though. Perhaps a naughty dog did it.

It occurs to me that the decision whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters in this game is a pretty perfect distillation of all of the thus far fairly feeble attempts to introduce morality into a video game narrative. BioWare are the prime proponents of this, and while games like Jade Empire and Mass Effect are some of my favourites, their moral choices were so needlessly poles apart that they may as well have all been replaced with Bioshock‘s version – do I murder a small child for personal gain, or not?

Day 3

So, after today’s efforts, I think I’m round about halfway through the game. Some of the cracks are starting to appear. I’m being sent on a worrying amount of fetch quests to progress. Kill seven members of a cult for the McGuffin they’re carrying? Find seven bottles of distilled water? What is this, a MMORPG?

I suppose it’s really no different from Doom‘s whole “find the red key to get the yellow key to get the blue key to get to the exit” schtick, but that wasn’t attempting to build a cohesive framework around its shooty shooty bang bangs.

Regardless, I have a soft spot for the mentalisms of Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic, even if the whole level basically reduces to electrobolting Spider Splicers and clubbing them with a wrench.

Well, pretty much all of the game so far has reduced to that, to be honest. I think I’ve not even used half of the other weapons so far. Why alter a winning strategy?

Oh, and to satisfy my ob-com tendencies, I decided to get that “Luck Winner” ‘Achievement’ on the slot machines, which consists of standing in front of a machine and hitting ‘A’. For about half an hour.

Thrilling! And nothing garners a real sense of achievement like a totally random event that has no base in skill whatsoever! Go, design team!

Day 4

While it’s not become what I’d call a chore to finish, I’m just heading into the last level with pretty much all of the lustre taken from the piece. The past few levels have been a succession of irritating tricks that I suppose were supposed to make me, or my character, or whatever fusion of the two, feel powerless. Like a puppet, perhaps, given the revelations of the final third that I shall gloss over in the admittedly massively unlikely event that anyone who wants to play this game hasn’t done so by now.

Regardless, there’s really very few more annoying tricks to be played in a game like this than arbitrarily losing control of my character to allow something narratively convenient to occur without me tapping away on the ‘Bludgeon with wrench’ button to ruin the precious structure of the game, and that’s exactly what happens here. This has the exact opposite effect of what was intended. This does not draw me into a narrative. It attaches a high explosive to the fourth wall, blows that sunuvabitch up and reminds you that you are wasting a perfectly sunny evening, with the World Cup on as well, swinging a virtual wrench into the approximately eleventy millionth ‘mad doctor’ enemy character model.

And as if that’s not irritating enough, it follows up this with an equally arbitrary ‘lose all of your powers for a bit’ section, as your control of your plasmid upgrades goes haywire. This might be less of a problem if the weapons in the game weren’t so disappointingly dull. Even with what would seem to be a varied selections of different ammo types for each weapon, essentially giving each weapon a secondary and tertiary fire mode, this just gives minor bonuses against certain types of foe. It’s just the same old shotgun, pistol, grenade launcher, etc that I seem to have been using since the dawn of FPSs.

The only difference here being that they might as well not exist, because even against what I assume to be the toughest enemies in the game you might as well just batter them quickly into submission with a wrench that freezes things, somehow.

Excitingly, the next level looks like it will feature an escort quest! If it also includes a power-up that reverses your controls, we’ll have a complete set of every shitty trick ever pulled in a video game!

Day 5

Well, it’s all over bar the finger-pointing. The last level falls much in line with the rest of the game, albeit in a silly helmet, and while I’ll give the last boss some credit for being different it certainly wasn’t particularly challenging. It also continues the last few level’s theme of playing with or removing elements of the game mechanics present throughout the rest of the game, in this case the Vita-chamber respan points.

This, you’d think, might give the encounter a bit of an edge, but assuming you’ve bought enough Medikits, shotgun and grenade ammo from the suspiciously closely grouped vending machines before the lift to the encounter there’s really no problem with the last fight. And you’re certainly not going to be short on any of those items in the first instance, what with all that wrench-based action going on.

So, it’s been mildly diverting for a few days, and I certainly didn’t want to throw the game out of the window at any point, so I suppose I got my money’s worth from the game, which if I recall correctly was about ten quid. I shall leave the game to percolate through my braintank for a few days before wrapping this up.

Finger Pointing

More than any other game I’ve played, Bioshock asks for a degree of collusion with the game designers’ ideas on how it should be played, and the enjoyability of the game is directly proportional to the degree to which you go along with it. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the ‘tutorial’ hints that pop up occasionally, and so quite often a message would pop up saying that I was low on health packs, but wealthy, so I should go buy some at a vending machine. But why, the cynical mind would enquire, should I bother when the penalty for running out of health is to respawn at the last respawn-o-vitachamber I passed, with the same weapons loadout and indeed every other attribute as when I died? Well, there’s the small matter of running back to the scene of the action, but none of the levels are so large as to present any real problems on that level, and with the amount of backtracking required in some of them may also present a handy shortcut.

In this game you have, to any reasonable standard, immortality by default, without a cheat code. Unless you’re really looking to max out the achievement points from the game, there’s no incentive at all to play the game ‘properly’. Why sneak up on splicer and snipe them with the crossbow, why bother tediously photographing and researching splicers, why bother finding all of the weapon upgrade stations, when the route one approach of running up to an enemy and hitting it with a wrench remains as resoundingly effective at the end of the game as it does at the start?

For the most part, the answer to most of these questions is that it’s more fun that way, and if you’re playing the game to have fun rather than simply complete it, you should perhaps play it that way. Unfortunately, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s not much more fun to play it the way it’s been designed to be played, and it involves an awful lot of faffing around, so I choose to remain in Wrenchville, Respawn County.

The back of the box promises a game experience like no other, which is a prime example of marketing hyperbole, given that this is a game experience very much like a dumbed down subset of System Shock 2 with a 1940’s graphical edge. Narratively it uses exactly the same tricks, but Bioshock‘s simplified approach to the genetic enhancements common to both games removes a lot of the choices that made SS2 more compelling. This wouldn’t be a problem if the combat mechanics otherwise felt smooth and fluid, with interesting weapons, but Bioshock feels dated on this score, more like a contemporary of Timesplitters 2 than Modern Warfare.

Right then, the storyline. There’s a school of thought that narrative has no place in a predominantly interactive medium such as gaming. I see the point, especially for games that have never and should never be battered into that structure. No-one is hurting for lack of a story arc in the Need for Speed series. Most developers’ idea of developing a story is to grind everything to a halt, show a pre-rendered movie then continue blasting away, which is at best a mere distraction.

Valve do this well in the Half-Life series, by subsuming the narrative throughout the game in a way that if all you want to do is run and gun, you don’t even have to pick up on it. Well, for the most part, as there’s the odd unskippable cut scene moment, but a lot of the game’s flavour comes from scrawls on message boards and overheard NPC conversations and the like. Crucially, the most interesting events in the game were happening around you.

In Bioshock, like Dead Space and the System Shock games, the most interesting things in their scenarios happen long before you first hit the ‘start game’ option. Not necessarily a problem, but at times it feels as though everything down to the level design has been construed more with the intent of supplying a visualisation of the previous societal collapse than it does with providing a enjoyable playing experience. I would dearly love for this game to have spent as much attention on its gameplay as its setting, as then this would be a truly remarkable experience.

As it stands, it’s an interesting, visually markedly different setting attached to a pretty dull, challenge-free, often repetitive game with limited variations in enemy design and weaponry. Narratively and visually it’s interesting, but mechanically it’s at best workmanlike and that’s assuming you play the game rather than abuse the inherently flawed game design choices.

10/10? Game of the Year candidate? Not a bit of it.