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 ONEBROKEN 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 TWOOPERATION 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 THREEPOINT 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 FOURTHE 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 HAPPENINGMOTHERSHIP 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.