My review-writing process when it comes to video games has remained largely unchanged for as long as I can remember. It’s a simple system that I assume a lot of other writers use; it isn’t particularly imaginative, but it works for me and that’s all that matters.
First, I play the game. As I do so, I keep a notepad or a scrap of paper handy and scrawl rough shorthand notes with a pencil – not a pen, because I can’t remember the last time a pen didn’t run out on me when I needed it the most. When I’m done with the game, I type these barely-legible doodles into a Notepad file and expand them until I have a coherent summary of my experience. Then, I write the review. The lion’s share of what you’re reading in the finished piece is a final expansion of those initial, hastily-pencilled impressions.
Continue reading “Memory Trouble” – On 007: Blood Stone
I didn’t really know that I liked Spec Ops: The Line until the moment it ended. Often, the closing credits of a video game bring me a sense of relief. The names scroll upwards and I imagine them lifting the weight of the experience away with them. Sometimes I’m glad to be rid of it (I play a lot of bad games). More often, I just see it as the end. A conclusion. Another thing I’ve finished or completed or achieved – whatever you want to call it.
It wasn’t quite like that with this one. As the assorted names of the Yager development team rolled away off the top of the television, I sat in a stunned silence and thought about everything that had led me to that point. I thought about life and death, about war and peace, about right and wrong. It occurred to me these are all themes that games tackle often; that my real life almost never does. Then, when the names had all but disappeared, and the final chords of Jimi Hendrix’s “A Merman I Should Be” rang out with finality, I realized there was more. The true end of the story laid beyond one more obstacle. That was the moment I realized how much I like this game.
To understand that moment, we should go back to the beginning.
Continue reading “Blood on the Sand” – On Spec Ops: The Line
[This post is part of the Completionist series. Check out the other entries here.]
I’ve never met anyone who played Harm’s Way for more than an hour or two, and even that’s pushing it. In a way this is hardly surprising; the game’s an arcade racer that only has four drivable vehicles, three very similar post-apocalyptic tracks, and a single three-race event to compete in. But it is surprising for a couple of reasons. The first is that Harm’s Way is a completely free release on Xbox Live’s marketplace, which is a combination of words I’ve very rarely been able to use. And secondly, Harm’s Way is quite a lot of fun.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a game that’s going to change your life. It’s just a simple arcade title that feels fresher than it has any right to by conjoining two well-worn concepts (off-road racing and emplaced turret sequences) into a surprisingly complementary whole. Players can either barrel around the desert courses in buggies and buses or hop into a roadside turret to blast their rival drivers with high-powered weaponry. Written down (and, indeed, in action) it feels like an idea dreamt up by a crazy kid, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. In a sense, Harm’s Way gets to something fundamental about games; that a lot of the very best are as silly as they are fun, and better for it. This brings me back to my original point, though. What is it, outside of the scarce options, which stops people coming back to this game?
Continue reading Completionist – Harm’s Way
[This post is part of the Completionist series. Check out the other entries here.]
I often think that when the world’s machines inevitably gain sentience and rise up to enslave the human race, part of our punishment will be to repeatedly play video games like this. It makes sense. Not only does Terminator Salvation give artificial intelligence a bad name pretty much across the board, it would only take a couple of playthroughs to have us all begging our new overlords for the mercy of a quick death.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. At the very least Salvation has the decency to only last about four hours, and if you’re feeling particularly charitable you can at least describe it as functional. As a startlingly generic cover-based third-person shooter, it sort of works. A lot of emphasis is placed on flanking around enemies and firing a tiny pile of unimaginative, unsatisfying weapons at their obligatory glowing weak spot. There are scripted sequences on emplaced gun turrets and, of course, moments which have you defend a given location against several waves of murderous robots. There’s even a co-op mode.
Continue reading Completionist – Terminator Salvation
As a gaming franchise the Bond series is still arguably clinging to the coattails of Goldeneye 64, which to this day is regarded not only as one of the best first-person shooters of all time, but as the title which almost single-handedly popularized competitive multiplayer. Of course you’ll have to take my word for all of this, because Goldeneye has aged beyond horribly and the idea of sitting around a TV, squashed up on the couch with your buddies and staring at a small quarter of the screen is as ludicrous now as seamless online gameplay probably was then. But, this is how things used to be, kids.
Anyway, Quantum of Solace is developed by Treyarch and runs on the Call of Duty 4 engine, which is about as good of a start as we could reasonably expect. It also has the distinct advantages of having a recognisable, current star at the helm, and being based on a film (two films, actually) released recently enough that people are probably still interested in them. Luckily Treyarch realized that Quantum of Solace alone was far too boring and worthless to function as the sole basis for anything, so a lot of the game is built around scenes pinched from the vastly superior Casino Royale. So far, so good.
Continue reading Review – 007: Quantum of Solace
The most significant thing you do in Hatred is murder a drugged-up hostage who’s locked away in the anonymous main character’s basement.
That basement is an interesting place, strewn as it is with automatic weapons, knives and makeshift firing ranges. It’s the kind of place Hatred’s initial trailers suggested you might visit. Most of it is, at first, obscured by darkness. The game’s monochrome visual style can do that; hide portions of the world until you’re ready to see them. As I schlepped around the manky little pit, hopping over boxes, crab-walking under pipes and firing an assault rifle at cardboard targets (it’s a tutorial, you see), I didn’t even consider the possibility that, just two rooms away, there was a human being laying on a piss-stained mattress, patiently awaiting her execution. And the game’s so blasé about it – literally throwing up the objective as casually as it had told me to press Ctrl to crouch. No context, no explanation, nothing. Just go and stab this woman in the head, please, subservient little player. So I did, in a pre-rendered four-second cutscene which took some of the edge off because it looked like shit.
Continue reading Review – Hatred
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