As my suffering readership is no doubt well-aware, I love a video game which prompts an interesting discussion. And say whatever you like about Sunset Overdrive, the new open-world sandbox adventure from Insomniac Games, but it certainly does that. So let’s discuss the thing that’s been on my mind constantly since the first five minutes of it: How can a game so fun to play, a game with such simple, elegant mechanics, a game based around a single near-genius concept… how can that game make me want me murder every single member of its development team?
Well, let’s find out.
Continue reading Review – Sunset Overdrive
Is there anything that better exemplifies the inherent weirdness of video games than Rockstar Games and Rockstar’s games? The company develops and publishes some of the medium’s most commercially-successful and critically-acclaimed titles – Grand Theft Auto V, the latest instalment in their flagship series, has a rating of 97 on Metacritic and made a billion dollars in 72 hours. But the company also develops and publishes the medium’s most defiantly puerile and morally-questionable titles. They are, in fact, the same titles. The aforementioned GTA V, to give one example, is at times a daring satirical masterpiece and at others legitimately offensive and inexplicably stupid. That a game can be both of these things is not entirely surprising. That it can be both so frequently and interchangeably very much is. Just how the open-world sandboxes within which Rockstar scatter their toys seek to both plumb the depths and scale the heights of American culture’s past, present and future, so too do the games that house them contain the best and worst of what the medium has to offer.
Many people of my acquaintance insist that this is intentional. That it must be. That no developer capable of such occasionally startling prescience can also be so short-sighted that they’re unable to recognise which aspects of their work are meaningless or insulting. And this may very well be true. Nobody can say for certain. It’s certainly in-keeping with Rockstar’s flagrantly cynical view of games and the people who play them; of life and the people who live it. But it strikes me as an odd way to craft an experience. Strange also is Rockstar’s approach to storytelling; their casual insistence on imbuing their stories with heart and depth and vitality, and on continually undermining those stories at every given opportunity. This, I think, neatly nutshells exactly what is so confusing and fascinating about L.A. Noire. It is a game of constant contradictions, wildly incompatible ideas, remarkable successes and mind-boggling failures. In the years since I first played it I have thought about it a great deal, and I still couldn’t say with any certainty whether or not I actually like it.
Continue reading In-Depth – L.A. Noire
Whatever your girlfriend might think, bigger isn’t always better. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is big. The biggest the series has ever been, easily. But it’s far from better. Wildlands couldn’t hope to compete with the two Advanced Warfighter games from 2006 and 2007; and it’s even inferior to the stripped-down Ghost Recon: Future Soldier from 2012. It’s just big. Bloated. Unhealthy. If size matters to you, then so might Wildlands. I guess the heart of the series is still in there. But it’s covered in fatty deposits and it only beats once every few hours. Wildlands moves, but it never feels alive.
Again, and again, I’m reminded that not everything needs to be bigger; that not every video game franchise needs to expand outwards. Ubisoft’s death-by-a-thousand-icons design is wearing so thin these days that I can see straight through it. And to think that an open world used to mean something. Used to matter. It stood for things – possibility, freedom, fun. It was the kid’s toybox writ large; “play” personified. Now it’s a rote checklist of mundane distractions. Wildlands has all the usual suspects. You can sweep weapons, upgrades and skill points into your trousers like a cartoon bank robber, pester convoys and patrols, lead the toothless rebel populace around like sheep. Interrogate this guy, kill that one, capture the other. Blow this up. Defend that. Stop for a minute. Paint shark teeth on your gun, try on a new hat. Do these sunglasses go with this outfit? Remember, a tattoo is for life. Pick something artistic. There are outposts to capture. You want to look good while you’re warmongering, don’t you?
Continue reading Review – Ghost Recon: Wildlands
It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Sniper Elite series. It’s one of those gaming guilty pleasures that sounds faintly perverse written down, and utterly ludicrous spoken out loud. Not that there’s anything particularly unusual about sniping in games; almost all shooters have at least one rifle, and many have whole stretches of gameplay that are dedicated to nothing but long-range marksmanship. The sniping in and of itself, though, isn’t the appeal of Sniper Elite. Things would be so much easier if it were. But, no, there’s something else that differentiates this series from other sneaky-stabby-shooty third-person games, and it’s that psychotic slow-motion X-Ray view that lets you see all the catastrophic internal trauma you’re inflicting on your victims.
Seems an odd thing to be into, doesn’t it? Certainly wouldn’t sit well around the office water cooler or the in-law’s dinner table, and you get the sense that Rebellion, the game’s developers, probably recognise this. Which, I assume, is why they continue to set the series in World War II, despite having exhausted every major theatre of the conflict. You need Nazis for this kind of thing. These games have such a throbbing stiffy for lovingly-detailed exploding organs that it would be uncomfortable if your bullets were tunnelling through the brainpans of anyone else. But killing Nazis is always guilt-free. In the context of taking on a xenophobic imperialist war-machine, it’s actually pretty satisfying to watch precisely how much irreparable damage each bullet is inflicting on the Third Reich. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Continue reading Review – Sniper Elite 4
I’ve had a weird relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise ever since the original game’s release way back in 2007. I “get it”, so to speak, and I’ve always felt as though I understand exactly what the series is trying to be, despite sitting down with the latest iteration each fall and realising they still haven’t managed it yet. I love the painstakingly-rendered locations. I love how the story weaves a centuries-old, fictional conflict into recognisable portions of real-world history (even when, as in the divisive Assassin’s Creed III, it’s in an especially contrived way). I love everything Assassin’s Creed wants to be, and everything it potentially could be. I just hate almost everything that it actually is.
Unity is one of the series’ lesser offerings – potentially even the worst, though in a world which also contains Brotherhood and Revelations (the two wholly superfluous DLC-alikes); it at the very least has the advantage of being its own story in a new location and time period. We’ve finally reached the decidedly more interesting major conflict of the late 18th century, having now abandoned the American frontier and the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean in favour of Revolutionary Paris.
Continue reading Review – Assassin’s Creed Unity