And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which has quickly led to six half-written blog posts in a Word doc as I flit between games. It’s time to clear the pipes a bit, starting with a game I actually started playing back in February. Lego Marvel Super Heroes does a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of its source material. Or at least, the Marvel half of it. As with all the rest of Traveller’s Tales’ Lego [Insert Popular Franchise Here] games, it’s not really very Lego-y at all. There’s only a token amount of building and customisation involved, and that’s fine. There’s one thing it does have in common with Lego the toy, at least in its modern incarnation. Lego Marvel is a great big toybox, filled with all your favourite characters. Or, to use a comics term, Lego Marvel is a great big crossover, an event drawing together a whole universe of superheroes against a single vaguely-defined threat. The game offers a playable dramatis personæ over 150 strong, ranging from A-List mainstays to, well, Squirrel Girl. As in a crossover, many of those characters are just roughly sketched in – the game has a limited selection of power sets, which get mixed and matched repeatedly – but the scale of it is thrilling. There’s a real geeky pleasure in watching Wolverine, Captain America and the Human Torch hanging out in Asgard, and in seeing your personal favourites depicted as adorable Lego minifigs. Lego Marvel has a bit habit of leaning on that affection, though, and hoping you’ll forgive the parts of the game that are messy or even outright broken. The controls are inconsistent, the four face buttons standing in for such a wide variety of actions that they’re not guaranteed to do what you want. Steering characters around is awkward, especially thanks to a semi-fixed camera that often places scenery in the way of the action. Playing it co-operatively with Imogen ‘Underrated in the Game’ Dale has been equal parts wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because we’ve never really played a running, jumping and punching game together before and that stuff is great, simple fun. Because its missions are delivered in perfect three-quarter-of-an-hour chunks. Because the game lets players die as many times as they need to progress with minimal penalty, making it a level playing field for someone who has dedicated a considerable fraction of his life to games not too dissimilar to this, and someone who has never handled movement in a virtual 3D space before. Frustrating because every time a button press doesn’t do what she’s expecting it to, or the game fails to explain a key concept, or obfuscates the solution to a puzzle so badly that I have to find a walkthrough on my phone, I imagine a situation where Imi, or someone like her, is playing this alone. And frankly, I struggle to imagine her not putting the controller down for good. That’s one half of Lego Marvel. The connective tissue between the game’s dozen or so core missions is a New York hub level, which plays like a chunky kid-friendly GTA. It’s a charming condensation of the city as it exists in the Marvel Universe, which makes it possible to fly between the Baxter Building in Manhattan and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, apparently relocated from Westchester, in a matter of minutes. This open world is stuffed with small side missions – chase down these goons before they escape, steer Iron Man through a skyscraper obstacle course, rescue Stan Lee from a pile of giant chess pieces – which reward you with new characters, vehicles or glowing gold bricks. Here, you can switch freely between any characters you’ve unlocked, meaning you can hurtle through Central Park as the Hulk, chase down a sweet ride which you jack as the Punisher and drive it into the Hudson, before taking to the skies in Mk VII Iron Man armour. In Marvel’s comics, there’s a long tradition of depicting heroes’ downtime, whether it’s the X-Men playing a super-powered game of baseball or the Thing’s poker nights. The New York sections capture that feeling perfectly, letting you decide what superheroes use their powers for when they’re not saving the world or battling the big bad. Lego Marvel has a Tony Stark-like habit of coasting by on its charm. A lot of the game’s pleasure rely upon a preexisting affection for these familiar characters, and an appreciation of the way their various screen and page incarnations are combined. As much good work as the game does to invite in new players, it makes too many stupid mistakes that render it as inaccessible as the competition. But when that charm works – a side quest that has you jumping characters, psychic to fire to hulking tank, to solve a single puzzle, or a visual gag that has Mr Fantastic stretching himself into a gigantic pair of bolt cutters to break a tiny padlock – all of this is suddenly forgotten in a whirl of fanboyish enthusiasm. Like I said, the ‘Marvel’ half of Lego Marvel is just pitch perfect. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONE
The first time I fired up Grand Theft Auto V, as the install disc slowly unpicked the world held within and built it anew on the Xbox’s hard drive, I had an idea. Talking to friends about the game, it struck me that the thing which has really stuck with people about GTA is that one story: you can hire a prostitute, kill her and take back the money you just paid for sex. For some people, it’ll never escape being another example of an Evil Violent Videogame. And fair enough, y’know? That stuff is horrible, and the GTA games – all the way to their fifth instalment, based on the reviews I’d read – are violent and sexualised and a lot of other things besides. But the game I’d read about, watched trailers of, was also beautiful. It contained a city of crisp fidelity, fresh opportunities for exploration and experimentation, and a soundtrack that stretched, like the best record collections, from Britney Spears to NWA, Clams Casino to Simple Minds. So, as the ‘percent loaded’ meter ticked up into the final digits, I started to wonder: what if I just engaged with the bits that interested me, and avoided the violence altogether? It would mean stripping out a whole part of the game, but faced with such a richly detailed world – where each fragile pedestrian has their own fashion sense and voice, each of their cars’ radios playing just the right station as you tear them from it onto the asphalt – pacifism felt like the only sane option. I It quickly becomes obviously that GTA does not want you to eschew violence. About three minutes into the opening mission, a bank heist gone wrong, you’re forced to put a bullet in the head of a guard, before he does the same to your friend. After seconds of careful consideration, I tried shooting shooting him in the leg. MISSION FAILED. Retry, pull the trigger, and move onto the next setpiece, which drops a few dozen heavily-armed police between you and progress, and places a fully-automated machine gun into your hands. Clearly, a compromise would be necessary. This was all prologue, a decade before the game proper, I reasoned. Besides, when I’d killed those people, I was playing as Trevor, one of the game’s three controllable characters, a gleefully murderous psychopath filling the role of group id.I was soon handed the chance for a fresh start, as a cutscene picked up with Michael nine years later – presumed dead after the bank robbery, now leading a peaceful but unfulfilling life in witness protection, with a wife, two kids and a therapist – before introducing the third and final character, Franklin. Franklin’s a young black man, a petty criminal who, unlike his partner Lamar, seems disinterested in the glamour of crime, and certainly not the kind of guy to go on a killing spree. This was my man. And this was the plan: GTA V features a stats screen which lists each character’s achievements and misdemeanours down to the most granular detail. It’s a series tradition, something I’ve occasionally wished for in real life. Looking at this screen, I could see that Trevor already had 22 dead cops to his name – but maybe Franklin could keep a clean sheet of 0s. II It took just a few minutes for my new plan hit a roadbump. A fleshy one. In GTA, it’s not the guns or the petrol bombs or any of the other weapons you can wield that’s most deadly – it’s your car. Driving is much tighter than the Bambi-on-ice handling of GTA IV’s vehicles, but it’s still possible to lose control of a car, especially when you’re impatiently nosing your way through speed-limit-observing traffic. Each character has their own special ability, reflecting what they’re best at. Mostly, these make it easier to kill people, but, as a skilled car thief, Franklin is able to slow time while driving. It’s pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card for when your back tyres start to spin out and tug you off the road. But in the first mission, as Franklin and Lamar forcibly repossess two gleaming sports cars and race them across town, I did not know this yet. So when, during a shortcut through a narrow studio lot, a man in a green rubber alien costume jumped out in front of the car, I plowed right through him. His ragdoll corpse bounced off the car’s roof, and crumpled to the ground. I paused the game. There, in the stats screen, it read ‘Vehicular kills – 1’. There was no other choice. Reader, I restarted the whole damn game. III Fast forward through the heist, the police shooting gallery, that first stolen car. This time, I cruised carefully through the movie lot, avoided the men dressed as aliens – there’s actually a trophy for not running them over, ‘We Come in Peace’ – and stepped out into the world for the first time. I unfolded the paper map that comes in the game box, picked out a few potentially interesting locations, and drove in their general direction. Just taking in the scenery, which to my British eyes is slightly too bright and shiny, like being on holiday. Enjoying the way it all mingled with, say, the creaky bedsprings of Mirror Maru on the radio. Playing with the Instagram-styled camera function of the in-game mobile, snapping graffiti, people on the street going about their business, and selfies. Oh, the selfies. I climbed ladders and clambered up suspension cables just to see how high up I could get, took a pic of the blown-out orange sunset, then toyed with the idea of jumping off. I shot targets in the Ammu-Nation gun range, earning meaningless medals until night turned into day. After getting my hands on a BMX for the first time, I spent one enjoyable hour just pedalling and bunny-hopping it around a reservoir, into Los Santo’s sewer systems, marvelling at the little […]
Another piece on comebacks, this time in the world of console-and-televisual games. It’s a bit more tangentially related to the hip-hop orientated posts which will bookend it, but no less violent or sweary. Sam Fisher. Like stealth gaming’s Eminem, every apparent retirement means another inevitable self-reinventing comeback. After a four year hiatus, and at least one return to the drawing board, Conviction brings back everyone’s favourite grumpy killing machine. Except, he’s not so silent these days. Following the apparent death of his daughter, Sam’s not feeling so subtle. As he tracks down whoever is responsible through fairgrounds, industrial warehouses and (in flashback) war-torn Iraq, he leaves a trail of snapped necks and exploded craniums. Oh yes. Out go the extensive gadgets and meticulous planning. In come brutal close-quarter murdering and its reward, the ‘Mark & Kill’ system, which allows Fisher to get off two or three insta-kill shots from the hip faster than the unholy spawn of Clint Eastwood and Sonic the Hedgehog. Everything is designed to streamline your stealth experience. The new ‘last known position’ system, which leaves a white outline in the place enemies makes it easier to keep track of cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also a step towards the removal of the cluttered HUD, as Conviction tries to put everything on screen. This is a double-edged sword. Replacing the increasingly over-complicated feed of information (light meters, noise meters, doing-a-jig meters) of yesteryear by simply jumping into black-and-white when you’re hidden is a neat idea. In theory. In practice, it can be headache-inducing or, worse, just plain unconvincing. Coming back into full-colour mode shows these ‘hidden’ spots to be quite reasonably-illuminated corners. The flashbacks and objectives projected onto walls, however, are a brilliant idea. They’re Conviction at its most beautiful, and should be copied immediately. But this isn’t a particularly beautiful game: it’s too busy with manly grunting for that. The delicate interplay of light and shadow, growing in sophistication with each instalment, is gone. There’s certainly no more gawping at thin slits of light crawling across your body, or the slowly-rotating silhouette of a fan. Without the strength of its convictions to create deep dark shadows, there’s little contrast, and little hiding rough-edges. Meanwhile, the men you’re trying to knock off shout increasingly hyperbolic threats. “We’re gonna find you Fisher!” “You’re supposed to be a soldier, Fisher, not some little girl!” “How about I take your mother out on a date, Fisher?!?” It used to be that the snatches of dialogue you’d catch felt like spying on your enemies. But that little voyeuristic thrill is swept away in the deafening scream. God, I feel like an old man. I know I keep leaning on the it aten’t the way I remember it argument, but this is quite self-consciously a comeback. The weight that carries means you can’t help but compare it to what came before. There’s the scent of a few failed attempts during that time in the wilderness, and of looking over its shoulder at the competition (the looming bat-shaped shadow of Arkham Asylum, the sweat-marks left by Call of Duty). After nearly annual releases, there were four long years between this and the last Splinter Cell game. That can’t help but build expectations: just look back at my 2009 preview for proof of that. In the hip-hop examples I’ve been looking at, the comeback pushes against the tension of all that time away to build tension, raise the stakes. All a long-delayed game has to push against is the fans. And so I end up focusing on how much complexity it has shed, reaching for options that aren’t there anymore like a phantom limb. The myriad of buttons and moves you’d only use twice was part of the joy of Splinter Cell. But, it is a Proper Stealth Game. It’s been a while since we saw one of those, following the death of last decade’s stealth boom. I just wish it would remember that, realise what used to make it so special, and just quiet down a little. But then, isn’t that how it always is when one of your favourites comes back from the dead?
Dear Bungie, I am writing to thank you, for one particular part of your recent and in almost all senses admirable game, Halo: Reach. This part was clearly designed with me, Alex Spencer, in mind, and for this personalised service to loyal fans you should be applauded. The Holographic Decoy is, as I imagine you already know, a great big hug to my mind as a gamer. For people like me, for whom there is no greater gaming pleasure than really, deeply annoying one’s friends, this is a beautiful invention. Thankyou for that moment of opponent bafflement when two of me come running at them. Thankyou for this new feather in the sniper’s cap, smoking out an enemy with a decoy mindlessly running in their direction, before splitting their skull in twain on the moment they poke it out from cover. Thankyou, most of all, for giving me a way to make my friends chase after an entirely lifeless holographic copy of myself, only to realise, having spent half of their precious ammunition, that it melts away under their pistol-whipping melee attack. The Holographic Decoy represents nothing less than a sheer one-hundred-percent endorsement of my gaming habits and pleasures. The low-level griefing of friends has found a new tool, tailored and sharpened to its specific, sadistic purpose. For this is a method more destructive than ramming someone’s car off the road during a tightly-fought race; more annoying than kicking someone at just the right moment during an otherwise civilised game of Wii Golf. More beautifully, aggravatingly simple than Solium Infernum‘s Vendetta bartering system, which allowed me to tie rudely-phrased passes at fellow players’ mothers to ridiculous demands. It is an electronic version of me which all of their senses invite them to shoot, but by which they achieve nothing except their own frustration. This is all I have ever asked of you, Bungie, and with Halo: Reach, you have finally delivered. Thankyou. Yours loyally,Alex Spencerxxx
There is a war raging in my household right now. It is not one fought with virtual bullets and soldiers, though they are entangled in the conflict. It is one fought in the physical sphere; in the living room, to be precise. The two sides? Those those who lay praise at the feet of the ‘Recon’ control-scheme and those who venerate the mighty ‘Default’. It is a series of battles, all fought over the same two-inch strip of white plastic battlefield, the weird hybrid known only as RB – the ‘Right Bumper’ – placed, between the buttons and triggers from whom it draws its mongrel DNA, on the top right of the Xbox 360 controller. Every battle begins the same way. In the middle of a particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach, an index finger strays to RB. It is squeezed, the player expecting a triumphant raising of gun-butt to the back of an enemy’s head. Instead, their avatar snaps a magazine into the rifle. Meanwhile, their opponent turns round, and places a messy no-scoped sniper round into their visor. The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks down. “WHAT?!?” comes the inevitable cry. “WHY THE HELL IS RELOAD ON THE BUMPER?!?” This person is a follower of the ‘Default’ faction. A particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach. An index finger squeezes RB. They wait for the assault rifle they have been recklessly emptying – into the American 13-year-old who has been aggressively questioning their sexuality all game – to reload. Instead an impotent melee animation plays, gun-butt meeting disinterested air. They crumple to the ground, plasma rounds still hot The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks meaningfully down. “Fag”, quips the 13-year-old. “WHO DID THIS?!?” screams the player. Meet the ‘Recon’ axis. Immediately, there is shouting, and cursing of names. Accusations are flung like daggers: did you do this? Did you change my set-up? Any further than this, I am afraid, conversation becomes unrepeatable on this family-friendly blog. The offended player presses ‘Start’, attempting to pause an ongoing game, while they fiddle with the settings, which only makes things worse for the person they are sharing a screen with. Treaties have been suggested: Why don’t we all agree to use the same control scheme? The response is a unequivocably clear ‘No’, often accompanied by language more colourful than one imagines hearing in the hallways of the UN building. Here’s the thing: controls are personal, as individual as the angle of a computer keyboard or the tuning of guitar. They represent your only way of interacting with this fictional world which exists inside the television screen. With that hindered, the link between you and the world of the game is severed. Personally, I always liked the switch the Halo games made between their second and third installments, taking advantage of the then-new 360 controller. ‘Reload’ was pushed onto the aforementioned bumper. For Halo 3, this also meant that the weapons wielded in the left or right hand could be reloaded individually with the two bumpers. It was a decision borne out of functional necessity, no doubt, but it felt more magical than that. You see, by placing all interactions with the guns on the bumpers and triggers, the game created a sort of distinction between the mechanical and the physical. The melee, jump, and change weapon functions were all assigned to the face buttons, colourful and inaccurate, the human inside the armour. The analogue-precision of the triggers and bumpers were saved for the Spartan’s primary interaction with the world: blowing things up with military efficiency. It fit in neatly with the Halo universe, which revolves around this dichotomy of precision and gleeful abandon. Dropping people silently from afar with a sniper rifle vs. manically squealing as you pound them in the face and hope for the best. It helped define the contrast between it and the (clearly inferior but equally fitting) controls of the Call of Duty games, then in the ascendant. That was a messy world of sudden headshots and dirt and blood flecked onto your screen. Halo is a clean-edged world of genetically perfected robo-men doing battle. Reach switched to a more CoDesque control set for its default, but that was nothing less than a flagrant betrayal of the series’ roots. Those controls were as much part of the series’ differences in the admittedly inbred world of first-person-shooters as having a recharging shield, rather than the traditional percentage health of med-packs. Call of Duty 3 had incorporated the more organic approach of red splats obscuring your vision rather than a health-bar. But Halo took that piece of artifice and moulded it into part of the game, a game where you played a man in a suit of armour which granted you extraordinary abilities. Now, with Reach‘s ‘armour ability’ toys (jetpack, shield, hologram, etc) assigned to the left bumper, that feeling is augmented. …Until someone comes and messes with your controls and puts them back to stupid ‘Default’ mode, that is. And so, the conflict rages on, at home and online. There are websites where ‘Default’ aficionados scoff at the ‘claw grip’ necessary to jump and aim at the same time. Which is practical enough, from a utilitarian standpoint and everything, but can’t you see how it ruins my fantasy? Can’t you just give in? This post is dedicated to the brave, stubborn menof St Stephens Road – the Benjamin Edwards, and GeoffreyMaillards of this world. May their names and uninformedpreferences be forever etched into the face of history.
It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in love. It’s not an entirely healthy relationship, I know, but goddamn it, Halo: Reach makes me feel so good. I present this, the first of a planned series of articles this week on why. “30 seconds of fun, over and over again”. And in one fell swoop, Bungie pinned down everything about why their game Halo: Combat Evolved was so deeply addictive and satisfying an experience, leaving games journalists all kicking around with nowt to do. Self-aware as Bungie might have been about Halo‘s successes, however, they’ve struggled to fully recapture it. While the multiplayer has retained its initial vitality, growing over the years with the addition of online play, new maps, weapons, and ideas, that’s not been so true of the singleplayer campaign mode. The new mantra for Halo 2 was “Halo 1 on fire going 120 miles per hour through a hospital zone chased by helicopters and ninjas. And the ninjas are all on fire too.” Which, incidentally, is not a bad illustration of how over-encumbered the campaign segment of each following iteration has been. It’s telling that the last two Halo campaigns have done away with Halo 2‘s key innovation, dual-wielding two independently-triggered guns, altogether. From the very first, there was a sense of trying to recapture Combat Evolved‘s singleplayer magic; of faking it under the looming shadow of the Law of Diminishing Returns. But Halo Reach‘s singleplayer has stolen that spark back, and breathed new life into playing Halo on yer lonesome. A lot of that’s in the little things. The Covenant Focus Rifle, for example, neatly solves the problem of tension-creating but hugely frustating enemy snipers by forcing them to keep a consistent, visible beam on that headshot for a few seconds before it drops you. In the multiplayer, that means a more interesting, quirky variant on the standard sniper rifle. In the campaign, it reduces frustration of sudden random deaths without losing any tension. Mostly, though, it’s how streamlined the experience is. Bungie have dispensed with the vast majority of mythology that plagued Halo 3‘s nonsensical attempt at storytelling, or efforts at experimentalism that proved beyond the ability of ODST. It also ditches the Flood, a brilliantly fresh enemy for one or two levels, but the first thing to come along and undermine Halo‘s classic balanced formula. What does that leave? It leaves simplicity. There are plenty of other things I love about Halo campaigns – the satisfying weight of the vehicles, the feeling of genuine responsibility for your marine sidekicks – but ultimately they all weigh down the purity of the core “3o seconds of fun”. Looking back fondly on the first Halo, as I often do, it’s those wide-open green and blue vistas. The claustrophobia of Flood-infested corridors and Warthog races through linear tunnel systems, even the feeling of getting your hands on the all-powerful Scorpion tank for the first time, just melt away. It was always about those open environments. They’re iconically pretty, and provide these peaceful moments where you’re presented with a small base of enemies, three or four well-placed Elites and whatever two half-empty weapons you’ve happened to end up with. And you look at it all and try to work out how to best solve this puzzle you’ve been handed. These peaceful moment before you run in and watch it all fall apart, are something Bungie have managed to finally restore. For Reach‘s greatest asset is one that sounds monumentally lazy: the campaign levels are largely recycled. The arenas where this kind of battle takes place are shared with the multiplayer, or the co-operative Firefight mode. This means they are designed the same way Halo’s finest multiplayer maps are: full of explorable nooks and crannies, offering tucked-away weapons, or alternate approaches to the action. Reach‘s big addition, ‘armour abilities’ – toys which grant special abilities from jetpacks, shields, and holographic decoys of yourself – manage to genuinely increase your options, as well as streamlining Halo 3‘s smart but rarely-used similar range of pick-ups. All of this means there’s a unique feeling of being in control of your experience, making battles feel spontaneous, which just isn’t available in any sociably multiplayer mode of the game. Playing on your own means that: a) you’re not responsible for anyone else, and b) you can set the pace yourself. Trying to find a moment of quiet in Slayer deathmatch, or even playing the campaign alongside a co-op partner who wants to push relentlessly ahead, never offers the same experience. So you sit on your own in the dark, and eye up the Spire, having already died on your last six attempts at taking it. The Elites have all got powerful-but-short-range plasma cannons, one sniper has tucked himself up at the top, and there are a couple of Hunters there … and there. You swear softly under your breath. But right before Death #6, you happened upon the spot where the mighty rocket-launcher is hidden. So you look down the scope, empty your last three shells into those Elites over there, hold LB and sprint for your life in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the rocket-launcher in your grubby metal-clad paws before they catch up with you… Simple.
Xbox Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light was one of my favourite games of last year, and something I still haven’t played enough of. I’ve already written one piece (and a quick one-sentence summary) on it, but here’s something closer resembling a traditional review: Inside every gamer is an addict. That hoarding magpie that wants to grab every shiny trinket and tick every number as far as it’ll go. You might think you’re better than the average World of Warcraft player, Achievement whore or Farmville addict, but everyone has their price. Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light is very possibly the game to teach you that. The set-up is classic Tomb Raider nonsense. One of Miss Croft’s globe-trotting scavenger hunts lands her in a battle between two ancient Mayan spirits, one evil, one good: Lara’s new 2,000 year-old BFF, Totec. It’s inessential, skippable stuff, but it’s only really there to provide the traditional backdrop of tombs, traps and T-Rexes. While the plot might just be the same old, the game itself is anything but. It’s telling that they dropped the Tomb Raider moniker along with the usual up-Lara’s-arse cam. That this is a total reinvention is obvious from the moment you lay eyes on Guardian of Light’s old-school isometric perspective. Along with the addition of a RPG-esque inventory, this gives the game shades of classic PC collect-a-thon Diablo. A feeling complemented by levels of full of glistening collectibles and additional challenges. Most challenges are run-of-the-mill: speed-run times and high scores to be beaten, ten collectible skulls in every level. But better are level-specific goals: cross the river without touching the water, or use mines to get a hole-in-one with the huge stone balls that litter the levels. Combined with sharp replay-inviting levels, inventive gadgets (grappling hooks, remote mines, magic spears that are both weapon and throwable platform) and a brilliant co-op mode (which shares the gadgets between Lara and Totec) every element of Guardian of Light is designed to make sure you come back, again and again. After all, you didn’t quite manage the high score. And all those shiny, shiny trinkets are waiting for you…
Ah, the Tomoe Nage. Just saying it brings back memories. A summer of Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory co-operative mode with your man Dominic Parsons. Chucking each other: wheee, down corridors; whoosh, across impasses; oof, into bad guy’s stomachs. Being thrown, more than occasionally, heard-first into a wall, all the while announcing: Tomoe … NAGE! That move kept us playing, and kept us giggling while we did. It’s the reason I’ve finally bought Conviction for next time me and Dom have got a chunk of time to kill together. This is what co-op games live and die on. Halo co-op is alright, yeah, but there’s very little that changes on account of there being two of you. It’s essentially two people playing two different synched-up games on the same screen. Shouldn’t a co-op game have a little more … cooperation? It’s this impulse which dissolves every session of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World into me telling everyone hold x! now! NOW! We’ll do some awesome team attack… WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU HOLDING IT? Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light has tons of cool stuff you can only do with two players. It achieves this by splitting the single-player character (Lara) and her skillset into two: Lara gets the grappling hook, while the the game-defining magic spears (which act as both weapon and throwable platform) go to her 2000-year-old Mayan buddy Totec. The lucky fella also gets a cheeky shield that can block projectiles or give Lara a leg-up, and a truly unconvincing accent. All this adds up to a lot of helping each other over ledges, across crevasses, and through various scrapes. The grappling hook can be used to absail Totec down cliff-faces, or as a tightrope across the traditional Tomb Raider abysses. The shield protects Lara from a rain of arrows as she plants a mine to blow up the traps. Guardian of Light is basically a buddy film. Not in the plot – though it’s certainly in there, with the classic ‘odd couple’ dynamic between the iconic lady adventurer and her reanimated male escort – but in the living room, between you and the bumbling idiot you’re playing with. Because all those cool moves mean you’re relying on someone. When the level’s final big trap comes down on you, and your mate is pulling you up by grappling rope? That’s thrilling. When they forget you have to hold the trigger to keep it extended, and you fall to the bottom? The resulting string of swearwords will cause any Daily Mail readers in a three-mile radius to start twitching involuntarily. But eventually, once you’ve punched their arm into a fitting deadness, you’ll just about squeeze through the traps and trials and tribulations. And as both your scores tick up in front of you (ha! I totally thrashed you!) you’ll bask in shared glory. And, looking back as you laugh and share a couple of post-exploratory cigars, it all suddenly seems like a character-building bonding session. Hey, this rookie ain’t so bad after all.
Weak, weak, weak. Expect this to be your mantra while you play Super Meat Boy, the latest downloadable platforming treat on the Live Marketplace. Like Braid a couple of years ago, it’s an indie-developed love poem to old Mario games, with a twist on the classic formula. Braid‘s twist was time travel. Unless you were Soulja Boy, it was a game that demanded a thoughtful approach to most of its levels: as much time was spent with hand on chin as on the controller. Like Braid, the levels are inventive and will often take several replays to solve. Unlike Braid, that’s not because your brain needs time to puzzle out the solution: Super Meat Boy demands only your body. Every level is an endurance test of reflexes and, by your hundredth squishy death, of muscle memory. The game is a chain of hundreds of small levels, each taking less than half a minute to finish. In theory. Because you’ll be reliving those half-minutes over and over again. Normally, that counts against a game: difficulty spikes, having to play unnecessarily hard bits repeatedly, equals bad design. The genius of SMB is that it’s all one big difficulty spike. The short and perfectly-formed nature of each level make it hard to get frustrated with Super Meat Boy. No, it’s not the game that’s flawed. It’s you. SMB will smack you down time and time again, but you can see it waiting impatiently for you to get better. Because each level is short, there’s little punishment for failure – except becoming a messy red blob on the landscape – and a lot of room for practice. Saying that SMB has none of Braid‘s puzzling isn’t quite fair: it’s easy to see, in most cases, that there is a perfect solution to every level. Every failure teaches you something. Play enough and you can see the cogs at work. It’s like testing yourself against a huge creaking machine, like one of those Japanese game-shows, as hosted by GLaDos. The levels are perfectly designed so that going back once you’ve finished them, they suddenly seem easy. And go back you will. There’s …ahem, excuse me… a lot of meat on the bones of this game. Levels have hidden warp zones and collectible bandages which unlock bonus characters and retro 8-bit minigames. But leaning heaviest on that easy-when-you-return feeling is the Dark World. which provides a twisted, even more curse-inducingly variant on every level. These variations are unlocked by A+’ing – beating a set completion time for – the original level. Playing for the A+’s completely changes the game. Tentative steps are exchanged for a furious blur of action. You’re truly in control of this slippery red blob, vaulting and flipping and bouncing off walls, leaving a victorious red wake. When you’ve mastered the levels, it feels triumphant. So it’s easy to forget that, just round the corner is another unbeatable level. You might just be able, on attempt #237, to scrape through it. But you’ll never get the perfect time. And what about that bandage? Remember: the game will beat you, eventually. After all, you’re just tired weak flesh. Just meat, boy.
Game shows! Huh! What are they good for? …Playing around with exciting new games technology, apparently. In this case, Microsoft’s 360 gadget Kinect, which easily wins this year’s ‘hardest name to accurately remember’ award, having taken three attempts to type correctly and being mispronounced all weekend by my fellow attendees. But, then, silly names come with the territroy. Eh, Nintendo? Kinect is Microsoft taking a long, hard look at the future of gaming and, to paraphrase Doc Brown, saying: where we’re going, we don’t need controllers. Which is an interesting step on, conceptually, from the Wii, going beyond the removal of those fiddly buttons and sticks that put off the older generations and just straight-up waving goodbye to everything. What looks to be less of an interesting step forward is the games. On the show floor, you had:–The One That’s Definitely Not Wii Sports (Kinect Sports, which seems to be the only thing Rare are working on at the moment, oddly)–The Proof-of-Concept Minigames One (Kinect Adventures)–The Honest Guv It’s Not Mario Kart Racing One (Kinect Joyride)-…and a dancing game. It’s hardly inspirational, revolutionary stuff. Worse, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Kinect attractive. I didn’t get to play Kinect Sports, but watching two people limply play table tennis it was pretty easy to see that removing the remotes from, let’s be frank, Wii Tennis doesn’t make it feel more natural. Having that weight in your hand helped people buy into the Wii experience. Meanwhile, the two Avatars (Mii-a-like cartoony representations of the player) flopped reluctantly along. It was, I suspect, an impressive use of the technology but it just served to reinforce the artificiality of the situation. The dancing game (Dance Central, to be specific, as according to Wikipedia it’s one of three dance games launching with the Kinect) suffered from the opposite problem. With one dancer representing both people busting moves in front of the camera, there didn’t seem to be any visual representation of what either player was doing, or not doing. But, perhaps I’m being unfair. I didn’t get to play either of these games myself. So let’s move on to what I did get my hands on. Um. Not that, err, there was anything to put your hands on… First: Kinect Joy Ride. It failed to play to any of the ‘no controller’ idea’s strengths, a problem inherent in the Kinect racing genre. Having no physical object to grab meant that when your steering went wrong, you had no indication of why. Were you grabbing this imaginary wheel in the wrong place? Had you steered too far in one direction? Was it that little sidestep you took ten seconds ago? No idea. I won the race, but didn’t come away feeling like I’d mastered anything. Which leaves Kinect Adventures. Stepping forward as the Kinect’s answer to Wii Play – which showed what could potentially be done with the technology in a series of (not very fun) minigames – it was surprisingly the best indication that this might all actually be worthwhile. To return to the eternal question of what makes the Kinect interesting, what its strengths are: it is as a gadget. That’s how it’s being sold, advertised in shop windows as Christmas’ hottest gadget. It exists as something to be filed alongside the iPads and 3D TVs of the world. The appeal is the idea of playing with sci-fi tech. The Minority Report feeling of flipping through menus floating in the air in front of you. So my first instinct was to play with it, see how it worked, and try to break it. Adventures offered the best chance to do that, with minigames focused on bending your body in the style of that BBC-adopted Japanese gameshow where people have to jump through Tetris-block shaped holes. This meant being able to test the admittedly quite impressive tech – what happens if I lift my leg? Ooh! Now what if? Ahh! – which wasn’t on show in any of the other games. The minigames themselves weren’t that brilliant but the novelty of testing the limits of something new can make up for that, as many early Wii games can attest. And so hilarity ensued: watching friends jump in the air and nearly batter a poor stranger over the head in the process. Some guy who decided to see if he could make his Avatar shoot a Nazi salute. Nearly falling over myself… That is what the Kinect needs to be. It remains to be seen whether the developers are actually going to realise that. (Likenesses of Mssrs David Inkpen and Geoff Maillard, esquire, used without any permission whatsoever. Sorry, guys.)