Gears of War 3The one thing the first Gears of War realised – the one thing that raised it above all the ridiculous musclebound-homoerotic-dripping-sweat macho cliches it so loved – was that it is just as exciting to be shot at as it is to shoot. Within six months, every shooting game had a cover system. By the second game, it felt less special, and so overblown spectacle and setpieces became the order of the day. Gears of War 3 was showing off its new Beast mode. Beast is an inversion of the old Horde mode, probably Gears of War 2‘s greatest contribution to the genre. It flips the core idea, placing a team of Locust baddie-monsters against wave after wave of wily humans. And so Gear’s precious vulnerability is replaced: at least in the version I played, the ‘one death and you’re out’ mechanic is gone. The key thing, however, is the unlockable tree of characters. The longer you play, it opens up the option to play as a whole host of ridiculous monsters, from the mace-wielding Behemoth fella to the virtually indestructable Sonic-by-way-of-Predator Kantus. To call Beast mode asymmetrical is a powerful understatement. You are the destructive force tearing Gears’ world apart. Having sacrificed the one thing Gears has always done right, Beast Mode really needs to capture the just as rare sensation of being genuinely all-powerful. Which, sadly, it doesn’t quite manage. Nevertheless, and annoyingly counter to my argument, it was compelling. It aims for somewhere between all-powerful and battered-down – embodied in the way humans can hem the big all-powerful guys in with laser traps – and instead concentrates on being a tight, sharp game. There’s clearly room for sharpened strategic playstyles there, for large amounts of variety within the same play session. I accept, grudgingly, that letting me stomp on puny humans might imbalance the game. But just where is the tension? Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. You know those party games, where one person can kill everyone else by winking? Or the one where people have to try and guess who the secret killer is, doing the dirty while they’ve all got their eyes closed? Mafia or Werewolf or, relevantly, Assassin? It’s looking to be the year where people realise that would translate beautifully to videogames, and Brotherhood is the big-budget example. You’ve got one target, dressed in one of seven strikingly identifiable costumes. Your job, obviously, is to assassinate them. But those seven costumes populate the world hundreds of times over. The key is picking out exactly which one is your target and not just an AI clone. Meanwhile, you are someone else’s target, and they’re trying to do the exact same thing as you. And so the game becomes trying to pick people off, while remaining invisible to your pursuer. Do you try to force someone’s hand into revealing themselves, and risk giving yourself away? Do you concentrate on being the perfect AI and wait for the inevitable mistakes to happen around you? Or, do you clamber up the nearest trellis and pelt it across the rooftops? As previously mentioned, Brotherhood is the blockbuster iteration of the idea. That means turning up the thrills, adding gadgets and fast-paced chases to the simple beauty of the parlour game at its heart. It’s just a little bit too easy to not play by the game’s rules. During my numerous play-sessions, some people chose not to play along, and played the admittedly fine action game instead. The game’s unique joy walks, by defintion, a razor’s edge. Bring that to Xbox Live’s infamous idiot-mentality, and you’re looking at a beautiful system inevitably broken. On the other hand, us boring patient thinker types have got SpyParty coming. And it is thrilling to realise you’ve just screwed up and throw caution to the wind. Giving up the pretence and just legging it over the aforementioned, beautifully-modelled rooftops. Slamming a door in a pursuers’ face and knowing you’ve lost them. For now, at least. One of the odd things, meeting games before they’re quite ready, is playing backseat designer. Oh, if only they tweaked this, or took away that… The conversation on the way home, the next morning, was about just how Brotherhood could be improved. It needs to be smaller. It needs to drop the radar. It needs to penalise mis-kills, of innocents or non-target players. It needs to be one-death-and-you’re-out. So here we have two games that aim for an interesting extreme. In my head, I see them existing as a perfect caricature of an idea. Gears of War 3‘s Beast Mode living up to its name, throwing your foolish concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ out of the window and laughing deeply, handing you the reins to an out-of-control overpowered war machine destroying all that lays before it.Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer living up to its name: drawing a tense mano-y-mano duel out of a crowded plaza, forcing you to eye up the three richly dressed merchants as you finger the whetted knife and wondering, exactly which one is the man you’ve been paid to kill, narrowing it down to two, to one, squeezing your eyes tight as you squeeze the trigger and — red, everywhere red, what happened? As your model ragdoll flops to the floor, you see the blade pulled from your ribs, the smile on the face of the pursuer you forgot all about. …Instead, they aim to be good games. Balance and tightness over big stupid innovation. And no doubt, they will be. They’ll be well-received, get 8s and 9s in all the right places, sell beautifully. But maybe we’ll look at it, this healthy beautiful success, and remember – for one unjustifiably bitter moment – what it should have been.
Hello. We stand right now at the very brink of the Halo: Reach beta, just about to end and, though, this was conceived originally as a lament, let’s shake off those funerary greys and paint our Mk. V armour celebratory pink! For Halo: Reach has been a success. A mixture of tweaks to the Halo formula and those big, bold additions make this the most worthwhile successor to Halo: Combat Evolved since … the elitist* in me wants to say Combat Evolved but as usual with elitism, that’s pure snobbery. The most worthwhile successor since Halo 2. And, though those exciting tech-porn power-ups, the Armour Abilities have been grabbing the headlines, and for good reason (okay, quickly: the shield is my favourite because it turns the game, for moments, into slowed-down strategy; the jetpack is second because it turns the game into a big old playground), I’m here today to talk about Halo: Reach‘s quiet revolution: Invasion. It’s barely tangible, being a game-mode rather than a new weapon or a shiny jetpack, but it fundamentally changes Halo and is the component, the one small cog, that absolutely makes the game. It combines everything great about Halo – both multiplayer and singleplayer – and has been destroying for productivity for a week now. And how does it do all this? By getting rid of the numbers. At its lowest ebb, Halo can feel a bit… pointless. It’s easy to lose hours into a few rounds of deathmatch, but sometimes, just watching those figures tick up, there’s no sense of achievement**, drama or tension to the game: all the stuff that marks Halo as a notch above all the other shooters it’s exactly like, for me. (It’s probably worth stopping here to note that, in games as in life, I basically consider numbers to be the enemy. They’re the gateway drug by which people are hooked onto lifeless MMOs, or Farmville. The levelling-up system so prevalent in Halo: Reach’s multiplayer does nothing for me. It repulses me. It is Rorscharch’s dog-brains-splatter to my psyche. But … I’m a Grade I Sergeant, what are you?) Instead of those horrid, horrid numbers, there’s a simple narrative arc set up for you. The aliens are trying to get our McGuffin, stop them! (Or, alternatively, the humans took our McGuffin! Get it back!) What this means, though, is that every kill, or death, or whatever, has some worth in a tangible way: it either helps or hinders getting to your goal against a ticking timer. This encourages small, perfectly-formed moments: the last-second rush being the most obvious, both sides gritting their teeth. But the one that comes to mind is my team of four (two allies having quit. Boo them) defending against six aliens just desperate for our lucky charms. Not expecting much, we hole up in the bunker that holds the McGuffin and wait… Plasma-sword-wielding Elites crash against us in waves but (to get nerdy) with a vertical formation of snipers and close-ranger shotgunners, we hold off until, in the dying seconds, one gets up in the rafters, takes our last sniper out. We’re chipped down to one man, me, standing over the McGuffin with a rapidly-emptying shotgun as the final second is counted. VICTORY. And so Invasion is. It’s simple, it’s hardly the first time it’s been done, but it gives all those plasma grenades and assault rifles a purpose. We kept the McGuffin! *Note: small ‘e’, as opposed to Elitist, the group of people who will choose, at all costs, the hulking alien monsters over our brave boys in red and blue. **Again, small ‘a’. As opposed to Achievement, those – depending on who you ask – absolutely necessary cornerstones of modern gaming or disease-spreading arbiters*** of gaming’s end-time. ***And that’s small ‘a’ as … ehhh, I think this joke might be done.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a couple of days while the dust from 30 Days of Music settles down, but I wrote an article for Gamersyndrome under my Moneyless Gamer alias on the influx of 360 demos in the cars-with-guns genre. In it I say things like: Blur is basically Mario Kart rendered in Microsoft’s ‘gritty realism’ house style. The way S&SAS Racing just steals the weapons and the concept, Blur takes the ideas behind that, rubs its chin, and reinvents them as sci-fi tech for its shiny real-cars world. And it doesn’t look like it or function quite the same, but the same gameplay ideas are at work. So, say, the red shell becomes a huge glowing orb, that homes but can’t take corners, creating a sub-game of ‘dodge the orb’ or ’save the orb for the long straight stretch’. Read on, to see me push the limits of italics as a device to stress that this is really flippin’ awesome, and indeed humour, as far as they will go.
The warthog rolls. Rolls. Say a quick prayer… Rolls! Yes! I’m back on my wheels, crew fully intact. I thank the UNSC for the divine gift of roll-cages. Oo-rah!Yes, it’s unmistakably Halo. I think the game gets a bad rep: that it attracts an audience of what might be (unkindly, but not uncommonly) termed idiots. This is the meta-story of Halo: the game for jocks. Also, the game that saved a system (Microsoft’s first Xbox). Sometimes people talk about the infamous 30-seconds-of-great-gameplay idea. But most of the time: it’s the shooting game for jocks. And, admittedly, it’s never going to be a classic example of Games-as-Art. Even a rabid fan like me (if I was doing an RPS-style Gaming Made Me– and I might yet- the first Halo would have to be on there.) I think that the reason for this status it that Halo, in multiplayer at least, is as close an example to sport as exists in gaming. A pure set of rules, occasionally tweaked, presented clearly; an environment for competition to flourish in.But there’s more to it than that. In its best incarnations (not Halo 3– a finely tuned sport for sure, but lacking a truly satisfying campaign), the singleplayer is a triumph. And here’s why that bit works, for me: it lets you role-play. I think it might just me be but… my fellow marines. In another favourite, Bioshock, the bittersweet triumph of felling a noble Big Daddy hurt. In Halo, losing the ally riding shotgun in my Warthog (the imaginatively named Rocket Guy) in a volley of purple laser causes me to emit a Vader-like “NOOO!” in mourning. Reason? Well, because I’m obsessively compulsive about keeping them all alive, the way I used to be about having 100% health (and a round number of bullets in each gun) in GTA3, a perfect record in Splinter Cell. But, more importantly, because in very basic ways these marines feel human. They shout like the marines from Aliens at opportune moments, and have individual accents. The much-mourned Rocket Guy, for example, was Australian, and knowing even that gives me something to grasp onto. Because, ultimately, half of the joy of gaming is role-playing. (The other half being rules, testing yourself against them, and testing their limitations. I know a lot of people who enjoy this element of Halo, too- seeking out the highest possible point on a given map, or investigating the “grenades under a Warthog” rumour.)Back to the point- I want to believe I am Master Chief, quietly iconic, as I crush a car under my tank tracks. The Master Chief would never leave a man behind. Even when it meant sacrificing the flow of the game a little- going back and replaying the last 10 minutes because . Testing the limits of the rules, again, but for a purpose. The replay becomes a mechanic in its own right, something that couldn’t exist in any other medium. It’s for this reason that the first level of Halo 2 is so brilliant. It knows exactly how excited you were going to be, dropping the hot-off-the-presses disc into the tree, and cribs from the Half-Life pre-game pre-amble, 10 minutes before you can even pick up a gun. But, with marines cheering me on as I stroll around a military base, I feel like a war hero. A celebrity. Later, my alien adversaries running away, screaming warnings of “The Demon”. An icon.And soon I’ve played too much and I have to put the Xbox away for a while. And then, the Bungie.net website steps in and lights up that excitable young boy in me (the one who never played D&D or any hardcore roleplaying, but looked at those fat glossy books of figures and descriptions and …wondered). Being able to read pages from the Halo Bible describing weapons, enemies and vehicles, sounds pedestrian -every game manual, surely- but the fiction runs deep. Reading marines’ accounts and comments on each topic gives a further edge of authenticity, next time I’m fighting to keep marines alive. It’s especially fascinating to see the fiction interact with the gameplay: a Ghost’s fuel tank is on its left-hand-side, so that is its weak point. It’s a world as immersive as you want to make it.(All of which is a little jarring next to the aforementioned sport of the online experience. A world of brillo-pad-to-the-soul-American-teenager-accents and racist abuse. A brilliant game, but with an execrable community behind it. That reputation is perhaps rightly deserved, but I’ve had some real tense, competitive games of Halo, more than anything else I’ve ever played.) So, Halo isn’t a piece of art. I don’t think many other people feel anything for their marines (in fact, I know people who purposely kill them, an idea which makes me wince as much as someone pulling the wings off a fly.) I know this is the last of the great Halo campaigns. But, the truth is: crouched behind a boulder as plasma bolts chip away at it, with Cortana whispering advice into my earpiece and fingering a magnum, I feel like James Bond, so why should anything else matter?