Category Archives: reviewlet

Reviewlet: Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol looked like an intriguing prospect in development, a contemporary espionage action RPG allowing players to travel the globe as a secret agent. It received rather mixed reviews on release, tending to “meh”, but when it showed up for less than £2 in a Steam sale a couple of months back it was hard to say no. Playing Alpha Protocol after Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was rather interesting, in a “compare and contrast” sort of way. You know what they say: first/third person Action RPGs are like buses, you wait all year for one that allows a variety of approaches to meet objectives, and then three come along at a suitable price in Steam at the same time. Give or take a few months. And they all feature a hacking minigame. And two of them are made by Obsidian.

I do like a spy novel, so the setting of Alpha Protocol is a big plus for me; there aren’t many games in the espionage genre, especially RPGs where you have a bit of freedom moving through the story. The key elements should be familiar enough to genre fans: rogue agents, private military contractors, assassination attempts, arms smuggling, double crossing, triple crossing, mysterious beautiful women, that sort of business. You play Mike Thorton, an agent desperately trying to recover the ‘N’ that somebody stole from his surname (and maybe some missiles or something). One of the key features touted beforehand was the conversation system, where you can generally take one of three approaches: Aggressive, Suave or Professional, which the developers broadly equate to Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. There’s obviously something about the initials “JB” and secret agents, lending additional credence to the theory that Justin Bieber is a psychological warfare project. This tends to work quite well, though the exact dialogue that results may not be quite what you expect; the “Suave” node in particular sometimes feels like it should actually be labelled “The ‘What Not To Do’ Example From A Corporate Briefing Video On Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”. Different approaches can lead to being Liked or Disliked by key NPCs, sometimes you can uncover in-game dossier information that may suggest the best approach to take, or you can always use your super-spy abilities to look up a walkthrough on GameFAQs. I’ve been on a bit of a John le Carré kick recently after seeing the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and was slightly disappointed there’s no George Smiley-inspired approach (apart from the fact that he’d have to be renamed Jeorge Bsmiley to have to right initials), but I suppose it would be quite tricky to create compelling gameplay from listening attentively, carefully writing things down and polishing your spectacles on your tie.

Once you get on a mission, mechanically Alpha Protocol is incredibly similar to DXHR in many ways. Sneak around, crouching to make less noise, avoiding security cameras with sweeping green cones of vision (if you get spotted an alarm sounds, find the alarm panel and you can disable it via a minigame); creep up unnoticed behind a guard and you can tap one button to knock him unconscious or a different one to kill him. Computers holding vital intelligence can be hacked via another minigame. You have a choice of weapons from pistol, shotgun, submachine gun or assault rifle (though you can only carry two), getting into a stand-up firefight is usually a bad idea, but you can take cover behind scenery and jump and roll between bits of cover. Oh, and every now and again you’ll get into a really stupid boss fight.

Just as in DXHR you can specialise in Alpha Protocol as a stealthy master of hacking, able to slip undetected past human guards and cameras alike, delivering precise knock-out blows or tranquilliser rounds where force is unavoidable, and just as in DXHR the game thinks it’s hilarious to stick a superpowered boss at the end of certain levels who has to be shot. A lot. And you haven’t even got the option of a Typhoon explosive augmentation as a handy “I win” shortcut. It’s especially jarring, as at least in DXHR you were facing cybernetic super-soldiers who you could believe were nigh-invulnerable; unless I missed a vital bit of dossier info that revealed a key Alpha Protocol villain had an adamantium skeleton, there was no explanation as to how a middle-aged man could withstand three magazines of assault rifle ammunition emptied into his head at point blank range. One particular fight descends into absolute surrealism as a psychotic Russian mobster snorts coke to become a knife-wielding instant killing machine, leading to a Benny Hill chase around a disco as ultra-cheesy 80s rock blares out until he gets knackered, at which point you shoot him for a while, then repeat. It’s like a reel from Austin Powers got spliced into the middle of The Bourne Identity.

Though the games share several mechanics, freedom is a key difference. At the start of Alpha Protocol you run through a weapons training course with sandbag corridors and pop-up targets, and the rest of the game never quite shakes off that feeling. For one thing Elite Agent Thorton can’t jump, his rigorous training unfortunately not covering “stepping over knee-high obstructions”, and though the level design usually doesn’t emphasise this too much there are occasions when your progress is stymied by an ankle-high sandbag wall. Sometimes you find a sniper rifle, but rather than, say, picking it up and carrying it around, you press Space to start using it, and when finished you put it back down in the same place, like it’s a rifle range and the gun is chained down. There are no boxes to be piled up to reach vents or windows, you can’t punch through walls, and the buildings you’re sent to infiltrate are strangely lacking in conveniently human-sized air ducts that let you into critical areas completely bypassing all security. The levels feel a bit like movie sets, sometimes with two or three paths through them, but with decorative doors and painted backdrops to appear more open.

On the plus side, they’re movie sets in a variety of exotic locations. Where DXHR featured an awful lot of corridors, Alpha Protocol moves from desert compounds to embassies to train stations to museums to parks across the world. I felt a lot more involved in the story as well; though things are headed for an obvious showdown (there’s a slightly clunky flashback structure that I felt broke up the flow slightly without adding much) you seem to have quite a few important decisions on the way.

Overall, then, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had great mechanics but got bogged down a bit in repetitiveness towards the end without an especially compelling plot to drive it on, whereas Alpha Protocol wasn’t so strong in general gameplay, but had a more interesting story and kept the pace up throughout. Worth a try, especially if it’s on sale for less than £2 again sometime.

Reviewlet: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution feels properly “Deus Ex-y”, but that’s a double edged sword as startling innovation from ten years ago can be old hat now. Back then, for example, the idea that you might not actually be a noble anti-terrorist agent but a pawn for shadowy conspiratorial organisations was pretty novel, whereas in DXHR the presence of the Illuminati is marginally less shocking than the tutorial informing you that the WASD keys move you around. Adam Jensen, the central character of DXHR, has mirrorshades and a gravelly rasp heavily reminiscent of JC Denton, but though JC sometimes had a bit of trouble expressing emotional intensity (“A bomb!”), Jensen is a full-on charisma-vacuum who drones through every conversation in a monotone with an emotional range spanning the full gamut from “mildly disinterested” to “slightly miffed”. Perhaps memory (via rose tinted mirrored glasses) is being kind to the original game, or the writing was better, or the novelty of a voiced protagonist made up for clunky delivery, but it seems a much more glaring flaw in DXHR; as Charlie Brooker tweeted “If any film starred a character as rubbish & po-faced as this Deus Ex prick, audiences would hurl shoes at it.”

What saves DXHR is the gameplay, equally solid whether sneaking, hacking or shooting your way around. Again demonstrating its heritage, you tend to come off second-best in a straight up firefight, especially towards the beginning of the game when lacking an arsenal of upgraded weapons and sub-dermal armour. I remember having terrible trouble at the start of Deus Ex, coming to it from more straightforward shooters, blithely running around the starting level trying to shoot guards while sprinting, running out of ammunition without managing to kill anything and getting pummelled. DXHR therefore offers a similar plethora of routes and options through its levels. Some require augmentations to take advantage of, such as the hacking skill to open a door (via a mini-game) or enhanced arms to be able to pick up heavy objects blocking routes or even punch through walls. The tech tree of the augmentation system works nicely to let you specialise in a particular approach, from improved hacking skills to quieter movement or even a (brief) cloaking device.

If you choose to fight it out there’s a wide array of weapons from non-lethal shock guns and tranquilliser rifles to the staples of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, with more exotic laser and plasma rifles later in the game, and a few varieties of grenade if you prefer chucking stuff. Avoiding confrontation involves a lot of crouching; I’m not generally a fan of stealth gameplay, especially if it involves ten minutes of analysing camera movement patterns and guard patrols and automatically failing the level if you get spotted, but it’s most enjoyable to sneak up behind a guard in DXHR and hit ‘Q’ for a satisfyingly crunchy takedown (lethal or non-lethal, depending how kind you’re feeling), and if you do get rumbled then you’ve still got options to run, hide, or pull out a plasma rifle and melt anyone who comes to investigate.

Even Jensen’s growl works; in lengthy dialogue sequences he might sound like he’s trying to bore the other party into unconsciousness (maybe his augmentations have made him too perfect as an infiltration agent and conversations are just a different sort of non-lethal takedown), but when out running missions he has a more of the Man With No Name about him, delivering the odd laconic aside but otherwise letting his actions do the talking.

Of course there is a bionically-enhanced fly in the choose-your-approach ointment: the boss fights that even Eidos admit were a mistake, when sneaking goes out of the window (or, more to the point, sneaking is unable to go out of the window, because there are no windows, air ducts, hackable doors or other alternatives). Forewarned is forearmed, though, so after seeing numerous tweets and comments I’d equipped myself with the Typhoon Explosive System augmentation (description: “Deals enough damage to kill all living targets”), which made the unavoidable fights as tricky as running up to someone and pressing “F2” (and sometimes pressing F2 again, if they were inconsiderate enough not to die the first time). Tiny spoiler: there is a later boss who you have to fight without the benefits of augmentations, which turned out to be just the sort of special occasion I’d been saving up a grenade launcher for.

I enjoyed DXHR enough to explore every level methodically, usually punching, stunning or shooting (depending how kind I was feeling) all the guards, hacking anything hackable, then working backwards through any air ducts or lift shafts (the exits are usually more obvious than the concealed entrances), but that did mean it got rather samey as it went on. It probably wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if I’d varied the approach a bit as I’d gone through, but despite the globe-spanning plot you wind up going through lot of strangely similar corridors with strangely similar grilles over conveniently human-sized ducting, evading (or shooting) strangely similar guards and hacking in to strangely similar computers (with the computers, keypads and alarms sharing the same mini-game that’s diverting enough to start with, but not deep enough to sustain that much interest). Maybe it’s a comment about increasingly homogenized globalisation (aaaaah!) The two city hubs are the highlights, with more scope for exploration and side missions, but if you thoroughly explore everything in one playthrough there’s very little replayability. The story is on rails; the first game was as well to an extent, forcing your hand at certain key moments, but it felt like you had more decisions to make on the way, whereas the extent of the choice in DXHR seems to be whether a couple of characters live or die, without a major effect on anything else. It’s fine to keep the action moving but never particularly engaging, not least due to Jensen’s dullness.

Overall a good game, not groundbreaking like the original, but solid enough fun. Deus Ex: Human Revolution gets the coveted KiaSA “Probably Worth Buying in a Steam Sale” award.

Reviewlet: Halo: Reach – Single Player

Halo: Reach is the game that turned me into a Halo fanboy. I wouldn’t say I’m a true frothing, forum-bashing, smack-talking, willy-waving, Ha-lolife, but I’ve definitely gained a great respect for the series having played through Bungie’s swan song contribution to the franchise. I was brought into the FPS fold by Unreal, a friend’s demonstration of the Nali Castle flyby on his Voodoo-powered PC convincing me that gaming had arrived full-bore on the platform. I thus skipped the entire Xbox generation: having made a large investment in a gaming PC I didn’t see the need for a console, especially when I had the likes of Unreal, Half-Life and its accompanying fragfests: Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike with which to occupy myself, followed later by the time-devastating march of the MMOs.

Thus, when I did finally take the plunge and buy an Xbox 360 I steered clear of FPS games; having been raised on the immediacy and accuracy of a mouse I always had trouble becoming comfortable with, and proficient at, aiming using a thumb stick. It was Gears of War 2 that eventually converted me, or trained me that aiming ‘well enough’ on a console would get you through most games at normal difficulty, and that I could still join other consoling types and pull my weight, or at least camouflage my inaccuracy enough not to be laughed out of the game. I still wasn’t sure about Halo though, and having played the odd demo I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about and didn’t buy Halo 3 when its blockbusting release arrived and busted a fair few blocks. I grabbed Halo:ODST on the prospect of more cooperative online play with friends due to its Firefight mode sounding very similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, but although I tried the single player game I couldn’t get into it, it was all too strange and seemed to rely too much on the player having prior knowledge of the game series to be able to get anywhere.

And so Halo: Reach arrived to much punditry aplomb, and with it came many comments on the lack of “circuitous, difficult to follow plots” that past Halo titles had ‘suffered’; in essence the game came without Master Chief and the baggage with which almost ten years of franchise development had lumbered him. It was time to revisit the Halo universe.

The musical score had an immediate impact upon me. The very instant the game starts its brief introductory synopsis you are presented with the sombre thumping military-like drum beat which evokes (for a non-Halo player like me) fond memories of Mass Effect, Aliens and the recent Battlestar Galatica TV series — quality sci-fi. The score is wonderful, atmospheric, brooding, ominous, and is pitched perfectly for the sci-fi story that the game is designed to present: the doom of the planet Reach.

I noted as I began the game that the introduction into the world is similar to that of ODST. As a silent no-name rookie you are introduced to a well established squad made up of strong characters whose personalities rub against one another to cause an awkward heated tension from the friction. Yet where ODST felt trite and generic, Reach’s characters were more believable and appealing and their personality traits, although obvious, were less in your face, perhaps an indication of progress in Bungie’s presentation of the generic hardcore combat unit, an understanding that players are by now, in the main, familiar with the tirelessly mediating and effectuating captain, the gentle giant of destruction, the brooding nut-job, the reserved assassin and the token female eye-candy.

The game breaks you in more gently than ODST too, it’s as though lessons were learned with ODST and that an understanding was reached that a break with Halo tradition also required a break with the assumption that the player was a hardcore Halo fanatic. Game mechanics are introduced slowly and sensibly, and although there is still a level of assumed familiarity — that, for example, you know how to operate the most bizarre game-based vehicle handling system known to man or Covenant — you are not thrown in at the deep end, but introduced to the enemy under controlled conditions that let you get to grips with the controls before more serious combat ensues. It’s a smooth, subtle tutorial that has you playing the game while learning it, rather than giving one of those stark immersion breaking tutorials of traditional FPS games, where the fully qualified combat recruit is forced to run through an exercise where they, as a first step, learn how to walk.

After that the game is of the standard FPS fare, but the story that is being told keeps the missions interesting and the player invested in the game. There are some nice highlights, such as the space combat mini-game which has a very Battlestar Galactica feel to it, and the cut-scene leading up to it had me whooping and bouncing in my seat, and was probably the point at which I started to get an idea of what Halo was all about. The weapons are generally satisfying; all the standard options are there from the assault rifle, to the sniper rifle, up to the grenade and missile launchers. If I were to be slightly critical it’s that the Covenant weapons feel far more powerful, but that is perhaps deliberate due to the fact that the Covenant are meant to be technologically superior. It’s a shame, however, that using the Covenant weapons is generally the preferred option — not only due to their power but due to the relative scarcity of ammunition for the UNSC weapons — because I preferred the more visceral and familiar feel of the assault rifle and its company. The reusable armour abilities are a nice touch, a semi-permanent power-up that offers an advantage for a short while before needing to slowly recharge itself for use once again. Only one of these abilities can be carried at a time, and although they are placed sensibly throughout the various levels, not all are offered at any one station, so a tactical decision is sometimes required. Or, like me, you just pick the faffing-great invulnerability shield generator whenever it becomes available, and stick with that.

The story of the combat squad itself is one that has been told numerous times and is a tale of inevitability; there are few surprises in the overall outcome, although the inevitable is delivered on occasion from out of the blue, and I think it does achieve its aim to shock you out of your familiarity zone, which again helps to keep things from feeling rather stale and regurgitated, which would otherwise be a danger even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise.

The ending, however, is what sold me on the game. It is the perfect every-tale of bravery and honour and sacrifice in the face of an overwhelming and superior force; you already know how the game is going to end because you are shown your future in the very opening scene, and yet you still want to believe that it will end differently — it doesn’t, but that just makes it all the better for it. Bungie has told the final chapter of their story developing Halo, which itself is the first chapter of the Halo story, and it sets the tone for what is to come after, both in terms of the existing games to which it serves as a prequel, and also those games which will be produced by the next developer to take up the Halo mantle. In the meantime there is plenty for Halo virgins such as myself to enjoy, because where a game such as Red Dead Redemption left me feeling glad that the ordeal was finally over, Halo:Reach left me wanting more, and so I plan to revisit the Halo games that I’ve missed in the past, while keeping an eye firmly on Bungie’s future developments.

Reviewlet: The Guild Leader’s Handbook

The KiaSA Guide to MMOGs has this to say on guild leadership:

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’

The estate of George Orwell protested that this bore striking similarities to 1984, but KiaSA Publications quickly printed a copy in an old font that looked a bit like a typewriter, spilled some tea on it, and claimed it had been written in 1926 so couldn’t possibly be a copy/paste job from Project Gutenberg, although when pressed were unable to explain how a guide to MMOGs could predate MMOGs themselves, the invention of the electronic computer, and the birth of its own authors. Fortunately The Guild Leaders Handbook offers a more forgiving and originally written look at the role of the guild leader with more emphasis on honesty and leading by example than tearing human minds to pieces.

Scott F. Andrews, long-time WoW guild leader and author of “The Officers’ Quarters” column at, has collected his experience into a paper-based advice dispensing format known as a “book”, The Guild Leader’s Handbook, which you’ve probably seen a few reviews of as No Starch Press mailed out copies to a bunch of MMOG bloggers, most of whom aren’t as slack as us. Still, our motto is “if something’s worth reviewing, it’s worth waiting a couple of months then reminding people about that thing that sounded quite interesting a while back”.

The book is comprehensive, starting with the formation of a guild and recruitment, dealing with different personalities within a guild and associated drama, the activities you’ll embark on (raiding, PvP, roleplaying), keeping the guild going over time, and dealing with real life. It’s generally aimed at a Guild Leader, as the title rather suggests, but would also be of interest to others with guild responsibilities such as officers, or even anyone who just wants to know a bit more about guilds in MMOGs. Perhaps it could have widened its audience slightly by looking at things from a non-leader’s perspective, though. The section on recruitment, for example, has tips on what to look for and danger signs in a potential recruit; it’s not too difficult to reinterpret “danger signs for a recruitment officer” as “things not to do when applying to a new guild”, but a bit of extra advice on how to find a guild and make a good impression might be handy.

Much of The Guild Leader’s Handbook is applicable to any MMOG guild, and could probably be applied to other online communities, but the primary focus tends to be obtaining loot through large scale PvE encounters, i.e. World of Warcraft raiding, not unnaturally given that’s the author’s background. The chapter on raiding and especially raid leading seems particularly strong, and another chapter is devoted to loot distribution; PvP and roleplaying are combined in a chapter which is a good introduction for those not particularly familiar with them, but very much a whistle-stop tour of key points as in-depth implementation will vary from game to game.

Perhaps the weakest section for me is on People and Personalties, using “Player Personality Classes” (PPCs) as a way of identifying potential clashes. The eight proposed archetypes, each with two specs, are a bit woolly, and as the author says most people are composites of elements from several areas. “Classes” and “specs” are very natural for MMOG players, but with a lot of existing research on personality, motivation, team roles etc. in a business context I would have preferred to see something like Myers-Briggs types translated into gaming roles, or better still picking up some of Nick Yee’s MMORPG psychology research from Project Daedalus developing Bartle’s MUD player classifications into a more detailed study of player motivation. Still, the slight weakness of the personality class model doesn’t really undermine the more important advice on recognising, confronting and defusing drama. A few sections are highly subjective as well, such as what makes a good guild name, but the author acknowledges this and is never dogmatic in presentation.

Something the Handbook really drives home is how involving a guild can be. Course some guilds work fine as a loose collection of friends, but past a point they need time and effort, from members but mostly from leaders, and extend outside the boundaries of a game. Most prospective leaders will know at the outset they’ll need to schedule in-game encounters, lead the guild into them and distribute rewards, I suspect fewer anticipate they may need to confront substance abuse or relationship problems amongst members. The last chapter of the Handbook, “Dealing With Reality”, gives sensible and practical advice for such situations, and though it obviously can’t cover precisely what to do, at least it can prepare a guild leader for the possibility they might need to deal with a criminal confession at some point. It’s not all about the darker side of life, though, it also covers organising real-life guild meet-ups. In some ways it’s staggering that virtual items and monsters, pixels on a screen, bits in a database can provoke tension, envy, scheming, even hatred; but then they also spark joy, camaraderie, passion, the togetherness of a guild which sets it apart from a single player experience.

Overall, you could probably get much of the information in The Guild Leader’s Handbook from websites, blogs and game forums, but (as per Sturgeon) you’d have to wade through an awful lot of crud to get it. The Handbook pulls everything together with a nice, easy to read style, with something for most MMOG players. It’s a must-buy for a WoW player looking to start up a new guild for raiding, though I suspect that’s a pretty small market; even experienced guild leaders should find something of benefit. Steering clear of obscure jargon, it might even be suitable to offer friends and family an insight into why you play that silly game so much and get worked up about someone else claiming The Awesome Sword that should’ve been yours.

To conclude the KiaSA Review Service (available to anyone who’d like to send us stuff), a couple of pithy quotes for the cover of the second edition, bracketed sections optional:

“Better than Joyce’s Ulysses (in its coverage of loot distribution systems)”
A la recherche du temps perdu has nothing on The Guild Leader’s Handbook (when it comes to advice on leading a raid)”
“(If your local store is out of Viennese spowling tape,) The Guild Leader’s Handbook makes an excellent (substitute, so long as the thrush-plate is) present (and straight, then curved.)

Reviewlet: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption: incredible world, mediocre game.

You play as John Marston, reformed gunslinger, family man, cowboy, philosopher, and – in the grand tradition of all Rockstar games – everybody’s bitch. Like Nico Bellic, Tommy Vercetti and his other game-based predecessors, John Marston is a criminal jellyfish: an entity with a vicious sting but utterly spineless. In the case of Red Dead Redemption the excuse for this utter inability to get anywhere in life without having to perform some weird and wonderful set of tasks for a random gaggle of strangers, is that Marston is trying to turn a over new leaf and become a good man because he now has a family. I suppose the game is set in the Wild West after all, where clichés roamed far and wide and free, therefore as much as I’d like to lasso this one, hogtie it and throw it off a cliff, I’ll have to let it slide.

The game follows the traditional Rockstar format, with a main plot that sweeps you around the game world, and numerous side quests offered by random strangers that allow you to build fame and honour and earn a little cash on the side. It’s the nature of Rockstar games that the path to redemption for the (anti)hero involves doing menial tasks for people before they’ll give you the information you need to go to the next person who wants you to do menial tasks for them, but it becomes so rote and formulaic that it often fails to take into account the nature of the hero and his situation. Early on in the game you meet the local sheriff, a brilliant character straight out of finest Western traditions, whose lack of trust for former outlaw Marston is both understandable and sensible. He gets Marston to ride with him and take down a local gang to prove that he’s on the straight and level before even entertaining the idea of doing him a favour in return. But then there are numerous characters where you can’t help but think that, instead of running off to do their laundry or fetch their cat out of a tree, Marston would be better off reverting to type for just a few moments, taking out his revolver, forcing it into their mouth and telling them to stop messing him about and give him the address of the next time-wasting moron he needs to meet up with. The man is a former outlaw whose family is being held hostage, and yet he feels the best way to get what he wants is to act like a spoilt teenager being asked to do chores for pocket money: a bit of whining and huffing and “I hate you!” before tromping off to do what he was asked, hands in pockets, kicking sulkily at stones. Either that or there’s an unquestioning acceptance of situations that seem to gradually escalate in silliness:

“Could you tell me where the bathroom is, sir?”

“You’re John Marston aren’t you? Well, then, I can tell you where the bathroom is Mr Marston, but first I need you to do me a little favour.”

<hopping from foot to foot>”I’m listening.”

“I’ve got this sister over in Mexico who needs to know if I’m coming to luncheon this Sunday, and I’m going to ignore the telephone system and mail service that exists in this day and age of ours, and get you to do it instead. It’s only two hundred miles away, so it shouldn’t take you too long. You do that for me, Marston, and I’ll see you right in getting to a latrine, yessir I will.”

I imagine that will be a quest in the next game in the series, Red Dead Reloaded, before the final game, Red Dead Revolutions, has Patrick Stewart turn up and return you to the holodeck of the Enterprise where it turns out you were stuck playing a broken and buggy Western game set in an incredibly realistic world.

Indeed, it is the world that keeps you coming back for more bum-reaming at the hands of pixelated human plot devices. It is, frankly, astonishing. You could probably spend as much time carefully exploring its every inch of detailed and beautifully crafted expanse as you would playing through the main plot of the game. The wilds teem with life, not your randomly placed crap MMO mobstacles, however, but animals that belong there, hunt there, breed there, live there. It is a living world, a breathing world; it is the best character in the game. The various towns and populated locations feel absolutely genuine, from the dusty ramshackle mining towns with their Deadwood saloons, to the Mexican forts with their weather beaten walls and the equally weather beaten Capitáns, through to the proto-city of the modern era, with its cobbled streets that cause you to pause at the strangeness of the clip-clop sound of your horse’s shoes against the sole-polished stone. It is one of those perfections of craft, where every detail and placement is meticulously made in such a way that the player doesn’t realise that any crafting has gone on at all, the world just exists, has always existed, because it is a real world.

The world is perfect, without being so perfect that it can’t be real.

There are plenty of other distractions in the game away from the main plot, some more successful than others. If you like poker and blackjack for example, then you can easily while away hours playing in saloons across the land; nothing beats reacting to a gambling loss by jumping up from the table and unloading a six shooter into your opponent. You’ll get a bounty on your head, but a full pardon is only a save game away. There are curious design choices, again some more successful than others. Having missions that can only be started at a certain time of day seems pointless, just let the player start the mission and advance the world clock to the correct time, if it’s that important; time-restricted missions are doubly redundant when a player can advance the world clock by several hours for themselves by simply entering and exiting the save game menu until they reach the desired time. Travel is also a curious affair, with your trusty horse always at your beck and call, short distances are never an issue, but the world is huge and missions often require you to travel from one side to the other and back again, something which gets pretty tiresome after your initial awe for the world has been tarnished by the somewhat mundane quest design. There are stage coaches at major locations, but the cost is prohibitive in the early stages of the game, and frankly I can’t really see the point of them at all. You could wait for a train I suppose, but again it’s hardly my idea of a rip-roaring Western adventure. The main issue is that all of these options are made moot by the fact that you can ride a short distance out of town, make a camp, and then travel to any point on the map by marking it as a waypoint; travel like this ruins the size of the world in an instant, and the inconvenience of having to ride out of town to make camp is nothing in comparison to the cost of stagecoaches, the time on horseback, or the improbability of a train turning up any time within a day of you needing it.

Red Dead Redemption also suffers from a problem of pacing. You start off the game slowly, doing mundane tasks as you are introduced to various elements of the game, before rootin’, tootin’ and, in most cases, shootin’ your way across the county, into Mexico and back again. Then you’re back to doing mundane tasks before the final dramatic piece of exposition. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, and that final lull is probably meant to be akin to the final climb before the big drop, but after all the incredible experiences you’ve had up to that point, it fails to act as a builder of tension or anticipation and simply becomes a tedious blockage to the end of the game. Rockstar’s writers come close to getting you to empathise with Marston and his family, they try to show the bond between the father and his son, the love between the husband and his wife, but in the end you just find them tiresome and uninteresting because you’re having to lead their tiresome and uninteresting lives in order to get to the end of the game.

When you’ve finished the game you’re left satisfied but quite possibly not wanting more. It’s perhaps apt for a Western adventure with some of the most beautifully animated horses that I’ve seen in a game so far, where you can almost feel the wind against your face as you charge across a dusty plain, that it feels like such a long ride to the end, and although the ride is epic and exhilarating in places, when you reach your destination you’re quite glad to be free again.

It is the night. My body’s weak.
I’m on the run. No time to sleep.
I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again.
And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.

I was born the son of a lawless man.
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.
Lived nine lives, gunned down ten.
Gonna ride like the wind.

And I’ve got such a long way to go.
To make it to the border of Mexico.
So I’ll ride, ride like the wind.
Ride like the wind.
           — Christopher Cross, Ride Like the Wind

Reviewlet: Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal

Going Postal is Sky One’s third Terry Pratchett adaptation. The first, Hogfather, seemed a bit of an odd choice, jumping into the middle of the Discworld series with a story about belief featuring an anthropomorphic Death as a hero, and though impressively put together it was a tough place to start for someone new to Pratchett. The second, The Colour of Magic, was rather more logically based on the first two books in the series, but they’re not my favourite of his.

Going Postal is a later Discworld book and features Moist von Lipwig, a con artist offered a choice between death and cake. Wait, not cake, I meant sorting out the Ankh-Morpork post office, fallen into disuse with the advent of The Clacks, an optical telegraph system. The Clacks exemplify the technological aspects that have steadily been introduced to the Discworld universe alongside its more magical origins, making it a more accessible analogue for our world, and the self-contained and comparatively straightforward plot of plucky underdog triumphing over corporate greed kept my non-Pratchett-reading wife interested where she’d wandered off during the previous two serials.

The production is lavish, with great attention to detail in the sets topped off by judicious use of CGI; apparently two million envelopes were addressed by hand to dress the Post Office, and even a minor location like a pin shop is transformed into an emporium to delight the most ardent pointy-fastening enthusiast. The performances are very good as well, Richard Coyle’s Lipwig holding things together (though I still can’t help but think of him as Jeff from Coupling) well supported by Ian Bonar and Andrew Sachs as Stanley and Groat in the Post Office, Charles Dance lends considerably more gravitas than a Culture ship name to Venitari, Claire Foy is a suitably threatening Miss Dearheart, but David Suchet slightly steals the show with a scenery-chewing anti-Poirot performance as Reacher Gilt, the villain of the piece. There’s a particularly lovely cameo from Sir Pterry himself right at the end as well. All in all an excellent way to spend a Bank Holiday, even for a newcomer to Pratchett.

Reviewlet: Flight of the Conchords

Flight of the Conchords wrap up their European tour at a sold-out Wembley Arena, a slightly surreal venue for the low-key duo. We didn’t catch the first support act, Lawrence Arabia, but got in for Arj Barker who did a great stand-up set, including what he’d learnt about history from games (like the respawning box of grenades in a barn near the D-Day beaches).

The Conchords themselves came out in cardboard box headgear for the stomping techno of Too Many Dicks (On The Dance Floor) and play for over two hours, interspersing songs with banter (“it’s like talking, but more professional… sometimes there might be two songs in a row, sometimes there might be two bits of talking in a row, though you probably won’t notice unless we draw attention to it”). With such a huge venue to fill they need a bit of help, which arrives after a couple of songs in the form of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (travelling section); he’s called Nigel. There are a couple of new songs, including a beautiful tale of wooing a lady in 1353, but most of the set is taken from the albums and TV series; my personal favourite Robots, The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room), Inner City Pressure, Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros (feat. Rhymnoceros and Hiphopopotamus), Demon Woman, We’re Both In Love With A Sexy Lady, Think About It, Hurt Feelings, Albi the Racist Dragon, Business Time, She’s So Hot (Boom), Bus Driver’s Song, Bowie. A request for Prince of Parties is initially rebuffed by Bret (“you should probably go home and listen to that one on CD… we tried it and couldn’t remember the chords”), but Jemaine launches into it, and sure enough stumbles in the chorus. The ramshackle performance is much of the charm of the Conchords, whether absolutely genuine, carefully rehearsed, or most likely a mix of the two like the magnificently ineffective singalong section of Epileptic Dogs. It’s also not best suited to the enormo-shed that is Wembley Arena, but when 12,000 tickets sell out in 20 minutes you can’t argue with demand; even halfway back they’re distant figures on stage, but a couple of big screens mean the subtle nuances of expression during Jenny aren’t completely lost.

The show finishes with an extended slowed down Sugalumps, Arj coming back to deliver his verse, security having to be called on an enthusiastic fan rushing the stage, and some lucky people in the front rows getting a particularly close view of Bret’s complimentary after dinner mints. Absolutely fantastic.

Reviewlet: Anathem

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a hefty tome, and when the first few pages involve “speelycaptors” and “jeejahs” there’s a worry that the Fictional Rule of Thumb is going to hold true, as the alt-text suggests. The language is there for a reason, though, giving etymological clues and reminders of the similarities and differences between the world of Arbre in the book and our own, so an Arbran “Saunt” has obvious parallels to a Saint, but the derivation of the word is from “Savant”. It also lets Stephenson tackle ideas without getting too bogged down in footnotes he potentially frames as:

“If Person X had never thought up Idea Y and published it in Book Z, then I never could have written this; however, please bear in mind that (a) I have no formal credentials as a philosopher, mathematician, or scientist, and (b) this is a work of fiction, not a peer-reviewed monograph. Accordingly, the manner in which I have used Idea Y here might not stand up to rigorous scrutiny; Person X, if still alive, upon seeing his or her name mentioned in an academic-looking footnote in this context, would, therefore, probably issue a public disclaimer denying all connection with me and the book, and otherwise is rolling over in his or her grave. Dear reader, please know that this footnote serves only to acknowledge an intellectual debt and to give fair credit to Person X; if you really want to understand Idea Y, please buy and read Book Z.”

Reading Anathem is like starting with Google Earth on maximum magnification right on your own back garden (or maybe a nearby monastery, if you have one to hand), and slowly zooming out and out and out, to the town, county, country, continent, further and further still, out into the Google Sky, and finally into the still-in-even-more-beta-than-most-Google-stuff Google Many Earths, where you can navigate through photographs of different realities according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Excellent stuff; two thumbs up, in a box with a small flask of hydrocyanic acid and a radioactive substance.

Reviewlets: Stewart Lee and Boffoonery

A quick comedy catch up: saw Stewart Lee a couple of weeks back, on his “If you prefer a milder comedian please ask for one” tour. Opener Henning Wehn, the German Comedy Ambassador to the UK, was pretty good, and Lee himself was fantastic. Covering the heinous crime of coffee shop loyalty card stamp faking, the joy of moving to the country or indeed another country for the quality of life (particularly with respect to prawns) and his admiration and respect for the Top Gear team, the high point was the finale, a brilliantly crafted, slowly building epic, beginning in a doctor’s surgery before moving into pear cider, the magpie culture of advertisers and the internet, and finishing with a song. Yup, a song.

Last night was Boffoonery at the Bloomsbury Theatre, a comedy benefit for Bletchley Park. Both informative, with Simon Singh doing a bit on the bible “code” before giving a live demonstration of an Enigma machine in action, and entertaining, with stand up from Robin Ince, Dave Gorman and Richard Herring and skits, spoofs and humorous vignettes from Punt & Dennis, Laurence & Gus, John Finnemore, Margaret Cabourn-Smith and the voice of Stephen Fry. All most excellent, but particularly most excellent was Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party, a Bletchley-themed panel game chaired by Robert Llewelyn featuring Maggie Philbin and Richard Herring against Johnny Ball and Robin Ince. Ince deployed fearsome, if ultimately futile, lateral thinking that put even Ted Rogers on 3-2-1 to shame, Herring dropped in deft asides, Maggie Philbin, having read up on the subject, actually knew the answers to the questions in great detail, and Johnny Ball is a legend. At the age of 71 he’s as full of passion and enthusiasm as ever, with that vital hint of lunacy, as several questions fortuitously allowed him to launch into a whistle stop tour of binary and Egyptian multiplication, Euler and the seven bridges of Koenigsberg and finding square roots with Euclidean geometry, demonstrated with a string of beads that have hopefully given Richard Herring another half hour of material.

Reviewlet: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was much lauded upon release by game pundits and players alike, and reported pretty much universally as a firm indication of the imminent second coming of our lord and saviour – J. Holy-Christ O.B.E, until the mania died down, people got bored, and everyone moved on to the next effusion of orgasmic halleluiahs, which seem to currently being ejaculated for Uncharted 2, with Brutal Legend surprisingly and sadly being cast down into the pits of gaming Hades where, ironically, it’s probably most comfortable, and is even now rocking out with the Lord of Hellfire; although, if a game that revels in the satanic imagery of the heavy metal scene is sent to Hell, does it really go to the fiery pits of the Inferno, or is it perhaps forced to reside in a quiet country field full of sheep and bunnies and forced to play Singstar: Annoying Whiney Girl Band Edition for all eternity? Regardless, the crowd of gourd worshippers have rushed off after a new messiah, and so I decided to pick through the debris of their wake and see what all the fuss was about.

The introductory sequence instantly lets us know that this game is aiming more at Dark Knight than the television show of the sixties, or even the much acclaimed slightly more serious-but-still-aimed-at-kids animated show of recent years, despite many of the actors from that show being employed to work their vocal voodoo on this game. Indeed, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a masterful work, and had it not been for one Heath Ledger, would probably be considered the definitive acted interpretation of the master villain. The other insight that the introductory sequence gives us is that the game is running on Epic Games’ Unreal Perspiration Engine, a curious piece of technology which can render landscape environments in stunning and immaculate detail but always manages to make skin look overly shiny as though it’s covered with a sheen of sweat. Maybe it’s a deliberate commentary on the future side effects of global warming, or perhaps a reflection on the greater existential problem of mankind’s permeability of thought, that our motives and desires inevitably leak through to the facade that we present to the world, and the people we interact with can see themselves reflected in the sweat-like sheen of this psychic projection. Either that or someone left the PHONG_SHADE_ALL_SKIN_TEXTURES flag set to TRUE again.

If you want a dry but detailed account of the game I would recommend the Wikipedia article. The game has a story typical of the genre, it’s a suitable vehicle to allow Batman to go forth and verily punch punks in the teeth with wild abandon, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for originality. It’s a super hero comic book adaptation, and as such it follows the trend of Big Bad Boss quite astonishingly escaping from a maximum security facility – for the third time this week – and contriving a huge and convoluted plot to destroy the hero’s City of Protective Choice whilst giving our hero every opportunity to stop him under the pretence of needing to toy with the hero first. The Joker is one of the few villains where a writer can get away with this script over and over again, because it’s basically the Joker’s modus operandi – he has to pick at the bat-shaped scab that scars his mind – but even so, if you couldn’t see the whole plot laid out before you from the very beginning of the game – like the walls of the Matrix in that scene where Keanu Reeves finally, oh thank the lord FINALLY, realises that he is Of Course THE ONE, You Plank – then you probably don’t read comics much. The important thing with the story in Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it doesn’t get in the way of running around and giving generic goons a darn good kicking, this is more important than one might think, and I’ll come back to why in a moment.

Giving generic goons a good old fashion knuckle sandwich is what super hero comic book games are all about, because it’s what super hero comics are all about. You can pretend that super hero comics aspire to a higher art status, that they reflect the nature of society’s doubts and tackle the difficult issues of the time, but in the end they resolve those issues by finding someone that they classify as naughty and punching them hard in the teeth. Watchmen – resolved by punching people in the teeth. V for Vendetta – teeth punching. Grandville – there might have been some animals in there who don’t have teeth, but whatever tooth-like substitute they have, you can be sure that they were punched in them. The combat in the game is beautifully realised, it’s not just the simplicity of the Rock-Band-like rhythm system that it uses, where timing your punches to the beat of the fight awards you with a linked combination of moves that cause greater damage, but the fact that these moves flow seamlessly together and look totally natural. If someone attacks from behind and you counter the move, Batman doesn’t just turn mechanically and punch the assailant, but grabs the kicking leg and snaps it with an elbow drop, or back-fists them in the face. There are a huge variety of moves, such that, even if you aim at an enemy who is across the room from you, Batman will move to attack them in a way that couldn’t have been choreographed any better: back-flipping across the room and kicking the goon while Batman flips himself onto his feet being just one example. It’s another nod to the ‘less is more’ style of game design, you essentially mash just one button to attack, use the directional stick to aim at the enemy you want that attack to land on, and the game does the rest. The subtlety is in the timing, in using the counter attack button judiciously, and in working your way around the room of enemies in a systematic fashion such that none of them even get a chance to retaliate. Because the combat is simplistic yet nuanced, and because the player is not having to constantly remember five or six different button actions along with the thousands of additional combinations of those buttons in order to progress, the combat is utterly immersive, you come out of the other end of a fight with Batman standing over a pile of incapacitated felons, adjusting his Batsuit cuffs in the nonchalant manner of one who has just single handedly pummelled an entire steroidally overdosed American Football team armed with baseball bats into submission (they tried fighting with the implements of their chosen profession, but hitting someone with an American football just doesn’t have the same impact), and you think “Wow, look at what Batman did!” and then you check yourself and think “No, wait, look at what I did as Batman!”.

As good a game as it is, I think that immersion is the real triumph of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Coming back to the fact that the story doesn’t get in the way of the game, this also helps with the immersion. The cut scenes are kept to a minimum, as such you don’t have your immersion broken by suddenly becoming a passenger in a scene that you were moments ago in control of. These cut scenes often change the camera angle so that you view your character in a way that can only be seen as you peering in from the outside, they eject you from the world you were living in and make you watch, helpless, as the entity that was you a moment before is now under the control of Mr Story-Teller. Honestly, I think that Rocksteady Studios could have removed the cut-scenes altogether and had the player play through them in an interactive way, but since they are kept to a minimum they provide, if nothing else, a suitable reminder that it might be time for a quick cup of tea, or to evacuate the previous five cups of tea.

The attention to detail magnifies the level of immersion. Batman’s costume gets ripped on several occasions, and that battle damage stays with you throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, when you come back to the game you are instantly reminded as to what Batman has been through up to this point in the game and you are reminded of your previous battles, as such you are able to settle back into the game that much quicker, even having been away from the game for some time. Batman’s outfit tells ‘the story so far’ and you get your reminder almost subliminally.

Adding further to the feeling that you are Batman is the fact that the game embraces the way Batman generally operates: he piles into groups of enemies and martial arts them into submission, or he sneaks around and uses fear and the shadows as his weapons, picking off heavily armed opponents one at a time. With the former method the game positively encourages you to wade into groups of enemies and revel in fighting against overwhelming odds and winning through, although you quickly come to realise that you are the Goddamn Batman and that unless there are twenty or more of them facing off against you, the odds are not going to be in their favour. The latter method is equally well handled, with Batman quickly being able to learn the inverted takedown manoeuvre from the obligatory character progression mechanic (often incorrectly using the appropriated term RPG, it seems). With the inverted takedown available, Batman is able to hang from the rafters unseen until an unsuspecting enemy walks underneath, at which point you drop down on a line, grab the enemy and whip back up into the shadows, stringing him up for his friends to find. The AI is well programmed, such that the remaining felons come running to their compatriot’s aid, and finding him all Bat Bondaged, exclaim in terror to the room in general “Who are you?!” and other such phrases, and then stick together more often, reflecting their increased fear. This all serves to make the player feel utterly powerful as they sit in the shadows of the ceiling and gloat. The game goes to great lengths to make sure the player always feels like Batman, and feeling like Batman means feeling in control. There’s this dark brooding menace and arrogance of self belief that serves Batman well in the comics, and the player is never thinking “how am I going to overcome this challenge” when it comes to combat, they’re simply thinking “what’s going to be the most entertaining way to overcome this challenge”. It’s never a matter of ‘if I overcome this’, it’s merely a matter of ‘when I’ve overcome this’. There are a couple of disappointments with respect to the immersion in this case: the stealth aspect of the game relies on Batman strategically using oh so conveniently placed gargoyle statues around the ceiling of the rooms in order to execute his divide and conquer strategy; it may just be that the architect of Arkham Asylum was as insane as its inmates, and this manifested itself in stuffing gargoyle heads at random into rooms that were clearly otherwise not designed for them, but in all honesty it just screams game mechanic, which is all the more stark when compared to the cleverly hidden mechanics in the rest of the game. It’s perplexing when considering that the mechanic for the Bat Grapple when used to move around the rest of the game world is, like most elements of the game interface, simple and enjoyable to use. Another immersion breaker is that the stealth sections are clearly defined, you can’t use the inverted takedown in the outside areas, despite there being many walkways and guard towers that would make perfect ambush spots. Apparently it only works from gargoyles. These are minor niggles though, and quickly forgotten when you realise that no matter the environment, there are punks who need to be taught a lesson, and you’re the one who is ideally suited to give it.

So the combat is delicious, and this being a super hero comic game that makes it ninety percent perfect straight out of the gate. There are a few other things worth mentioning though. For example, this being a super hero comic game, all of the female characters (barring Token Dowdy Doctor Lady) are over-sexualised to the point of driving all the way past the suburbs of Parody and heading deep into downtown Juvenile Masturbation Fantasy. For good or for bad, foxy females are a staple of super hero comic books, but in recent years it seems to have devolved from the innocence of pubescent infatuation into a more demeaning, derogatory and dark place better suited to seedy Soho stores. It’s a shame to see the game follow this trend, because although the Dark Knight had an adult audience as its intended focus, it refrained from such cheap thrills.

The Sandman levels are also worth a mention, making excellent use of the villain’s hallucinogenic devices to twist the game on its head and provide a nice change of pace to the ‘explore and conquer’ mode of the main game. Think American McGee meets Mario and you won’t be far wrong.

And finally two design decisions which show the curious nature of game development, where on the one hand the old tropes of past games are ignored, and yet another is included for no added benefit. Throughout the game there are numerous ventilation grates which Batman can yank off in order to sneak around obstacles and enemies, but to do this you have to go up to the vent, press the A button to start the process and then repeatedly mash the A button in order to pull the vent from its housing. Why? It seems utterly pointless, there’s no game to it, you either press A enough or you don’t, there’s no timing or rhythm mini-game, the amount of noise you make isn’t affected by the speed of your button presses, it’s just utterly pointless, and I’m totally curious as to why it’s in there. On the other hand, Rocksteady Studios completely resisted any urge to add a token and utterly inane driving section to the game. Possibly a first in any Batman game to date, and something that they should be congratulated on. When the Batmobile blows up somewhere near the start of the game, I couldn’t have cheered more.

There’s no doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum is an accomplished game; whether it’s actually worthy of the Second Coming praise that has been showered upon it, or whether that was just a product of a games journalism industry floored out of left field by a competent and compelling super hero game, I think it must be for the individual player to decide, but if you love the idea of the being the one, the only, the true “Goddamn Batman”, then welcome to Judgement Day.