Tag Archives: games

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads.

The locomotive of my MMO enthusiasm has finally run out of steam, for the time being at least. The once huffing-puffing funnel is cold and still, and the roaring firebox –burnt out– now smoulders silently, where even a vigorous stirring of hype elicits nothing more than a gentle ember glow. As the running gear of my fervour slowly seizes, resistance to resuming my journey along that straight, bland, unchanging MMO track builds inexorably. A number of us are still keen on playing together, and as such we have all clambered like the Keystone Kops onto a single handcar, which we propel perilously down the MMO track, our arms flailing, but hanging on against all the odds nevertheless.

City of Heroes is the game we find ourselves enjoying at the moment, primarily, I feel, because it is one of the least MMO-like MMOs around. Oh, it still has all the standard MMO tropes, I grant you, but what it lacks is many of the border guards, barking dogs and machine gun posts of the traditional MMO regime, whose only purpose seems to be to stop you getting together with the people of your own kind, whose company you enjoy. CoH used to be excellent for getting a group together, now I would say that it is probably unsurpassed. I’d proffer that its whole purpose is to delight those who use it, but that would be inaccurate; its purpose is to be ignored entirely by those who use it. In short, City of Heroes’ grouping system works like this: invite people to your group, pick a mission, have fun. Everything else is taken care of. It’s the Jeeves of MMO group mechanics: useful, helpful, discrete, empowering, facilitating and, sadly, an incredibly rare find.

I tried to enjoy Lord of the Rings Online’s latest expansion, but outside of the absolutely stunning cosmetic items the new content provides, there’s nothing new there that excites me. If I were already chugging happily down the MMO track, then this would undoubtedly be solid fuel to keep the big wheels turning, but there’s simply not enough originality there to kick-start a seized and stationary locomotive of enthusiasm. I think I am, perhaps unfairly, disappointed that the latest expansion doesn’t really include any fresh system which drags the game in new and interesting directions: despite how players may feel about the skirmish and legendary item systems, they were at least attempts at something a little bit different. This latest expansion includes an implementation of phasing, a technology which Blizzard has already successfully proven doesn’t really work as intended, often breaking the immersion it is supposed to enhance, and sometimes inadvertently becoming one of the barriers to grouping with friends. I hesitate to say that this expansion was lacklustre, but to my mind it seems as though Turbine may be dedicating resources to their own Titan, because although they are clearly not neglecting LotRO, there just doesn’t seem to be the desperate drive to impress that was present in the previous paid expansion, as though LotRO will not be the flagship in Turbine’s fleet for much longer.

In the meantime I’ve switched tracks and find myself hurtling along in the game train, whose tender is overflowing with rich fuel. So far I’ve shovelled Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Space Marine, Gears of War 3 and Bastion into the firebox, and the pressure of choice was so great at one point that my boiler was in danger of bursting. I burnt through those games in short order, however, and now I’ve picked up the latest DLC for Dragon Age 2, because despite all the raging Internet forum complaints, I still found the game enjoyable enough to run through it twice. Mark of the Assassins has added Felicia Day, which is never a bad thing to my mind, or to the minds of the majority of Internet nerds, upon which I’m sure Bioware’s marketing department is relying. Somewhere in the recesses of Bioware Marketing HQ, a big tick is being slowly and firmly scribed with a squeaking whiteboard marker against the name Felicia Day, ensconced as it is alongside the names Jennifer Hale and Claudia Black, beneath the double-underlined heading “Voicerotica for nerds”.

It’s good to be back on the game train, something always worth doing from time to time: often, when you play MMOs exclusively for too long, you forget what the simple pleasure and satisfaction of playing a game actually feels like.

Never laugh at those who suffer; suffer sometimes those who laugh.

I’m in a bit of a funk with regards to gaming at the moment, nothing terribly disastrous but I’ve just had some bad luck with recent purchases.

I made the mistake of buying World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion from Amazon, which still hasn’t turned up as of today. Of course I’m not alone, but as is usual in this modern world of ours, a large corporation can break its promises and obligations and happily just ignore the issue, sweep it under the carpet, and carry on paying out nice fat bonuses to its executives. Of course I’d gotten into that vicious cycle of giving them the benefit of the doubt and thus waited too long for the thing to arrive, rather than just going out and buying it elsewhere a day or so after it was delayed, and then returning the copy from Amazon should it ever turn up. Still, I’ve resolved today to go and buy a copy from a retail outlet, at which point, of course, my copy from Amazon will arrive. Along with seven other copies I didn’t order.

And then Lord of the Rings Online managed to frustrate me yesterday. Having needed some points and deciding to splash out and buy the maximum amount the day before, it was yesterday that they then decided to offer their points at a massive discount, so I lost out on 1900 points for the want of waiting one more random day before spending money with them. It’s not the end of the world, but it seems backward that people who have purchased points are ‘punished’ for investing in the game as and when they needed the points, whereas people who hung around not paying anything get a potential bonus for not investing earlier. Of course it’s all just business, Turbine/Codemasters are just trying to give another incentive for people to spend money in the store, and they certainly don’t care about people who have already spent money with them, but the timing of it – one day meaning the difference of some £15 or so – was a bit galling for me. For my part it has probably lost them money in the long run, as had the offer been advertised I would have waited and bought two lots of points; now, as it stands, I’ll probably not buy any more points again. Why do so? Why risk giving them money only for them to put the points on offer the very next day.

My actual gaming is progressing rather splendidly, however. I have lots of games on the go, and although my writing here has slowed down this month, that’s mainly due to being excessively busy at work; not having much to say about these games that hasn’t already been said before; snow; and having a two-year-old who is just starting to understand and enjoy the wonders and delights of Christmas – it’s pretty much impossible not to want to be a part of that.

I’ve headed back into Warhammer Online and I think the recent changes Mythic have implemented to open RvR are much for the better, although it’s interesting to see how sections of the existing player-base are having trouble adapting away from the ‘Zerg Only Keep Doors For Great Victory’ mentality that was prevalent, nay, necessary, in the old system. Lord of the Rings Online is still very enjoyable despite my basement-nerd-fist-shaking outrage at having narrowly lost out on a great deal, and with a static group character to play, as well as my Warden working her way through the Volume 1 epic storyline, there’s plenty to keep me occupied. Other games on my play-list are Pirates of the Burning Sea, which recently went free-to-play, and looks to be a cracking little diversion if I can ever get my mind ‘holding the weather gage’ to the game’s many and various mechanics; and World of Warcraft, which I’ve been holding off on until my expansion box arrives (ha!) because I intend to play a new character and don’t want to burn out playing through the high level content before I’ve had a chance to roll my Worgen warrior.

So, plenty of games to keep me ticking over until the next Great Hyped Hope arrives; Rift is sounding more interesting by the day, and I can’t listen on Spotify to the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra’s rendition of the Guild Wars theme without experiencing a rather emotional desire to be wandering the lands and experiencing the world that Guild Wars 2 professes to offer. I’m increasingly unsure about Star Wars: The Old Republic however; I have a deep seated desire to play it, make no mistake, but it’s how I will play it that leaves me uncertain. At the moment, from the limited information available, it seems as though the game will be a solo affair – Mass Effect: Star Wars Edition, say – with the vague potential for online cooperative play should you so desire.

Each of these three games tries to make their world, and the stories within that world, dynamic in a way that engages the player far more than we have experienced in MMOs up until now. It seems that this concept will serve as the foundation for the next generation of MMOs, but whether it will succeed is still anyone’s guess. My prediction is that there will be a tangible ‘something’ that attracts new players to these next generation MMOs, but that it will be Blizzard who – as World of Warcraft did with EverQuest – take the essence of that concept, fold it into Titan and make it accessible and mainstream, thus creating the next MMO behemoth.

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: 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

I can believe anything provided it is incredible.

So that was the weekend that was; that is to say, that was the weekend that was when I finished Mass Effect 2. I’m left feeling slightly more empty than I was when I finished Dragon Age: Origins, I think it’s probably as much to do with the fact that I took time to complete everything I could in Mass Effect 2 and therefore have no desire to go back through it, even if there is the option to play as a renegade rather than a paragon. Let’s face it though, there’s no real difference between the two at the end of the day: in the paragon version of events you would verbally persuade a guard that it would be better for their family and friends if they let you through the door, and they would thank you for the advice and let you go on your way, whereas in the renegade version you explain things via the arcane diplomatic art of fracturing their skull against a door frame, and they thank you for the advice through the remaining half of their jaw, and let you go on your way.

Both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 follow Bioware’s now standard technique for telling a big story with various branches: hero exists; hero is tasked with saving the country/planet/universe; hero goes around recruiting a formidable group of allies through various location-based missions; hero finds out that all of the people they have recruited are wet-blanket children who can’t solve personal problems on their own; hero runs around several other locations solving the teenage angst of their companions; hero runs around a bit more to make sure they’ve done any plot-inconsequential side missions that might award some sexy looking armour or weapons; hero goes to obvious location of Final Battle; hero defeats inevitable Big Bad; some party members leave/die depending on a few arbitrary decisions that sometimes make sense, sometimes not. The End.

As far as it goes it works, and works well enough, because they’ve had several generations of games to iterate through and perfect the system, but once you’ve played through a few, Bioware’s games do seem a bit like RPG Trivial Pursuit: fill up your little party-wheel with coloured wedges of heroes, and once you have a full set, head in to the middle of the board to answer the final boss question, which is always either about dragons or giant robots depending on whether you picked the Fantasy or Sci-Fi category.

So the game design is fairly formulaic within the little genre that Bioware have created, which, in a fit of inspired originality, we shall call Bioware RPGs, but also the game play often has obvious flaws or bugs in it.

In Dragon Age: Origins my rogue character kept heading into melee every battle, even though I had their preset tactics set up for archery, because I’d picked a selection of archer talents. I didn’t want to have to micro-manage them every fight, like some sort of errant three-year-old child who happens to like stabbing people to death with daggers.

“No dear, I’ve told you before, use your bow to kill the bad men or you won’t get any pudding tonight. Oh now, there’s no point in rolling around on the floor like that, it’s not going to change anything. No, banging your head on the chest of loot won’t work either. And stabbing the cat is right out! Go to your room young lady and think about what you’ve done!”

So I bit the bullet and went into the tactics menu and set a bunch of options, I can’t remember what, precisely, but essentially the plan was to force them in any situation to get their bow out and shoot from range. I don’t know quite how I managed it, but what I ended up with on the first fight was a rogue who stood on the edge of the battle and just constantly swapped between their daggers and their bow, unsheathing one, only to put it a way and draw the other. It’s like my rogue was having some sort of authority crisis, or they had suddenly turned from a tempestuous toddler into a sullen teenager who was going to do exactly what I asked in just such a way that meant they weren’t doing what I intended, before stamping up the stairs to their room and sulking to the sounds of Ben Folds Five or Jimmy Eat World. So I did the thing that any parent would do given the chance, I took them gently to one side, made thoughtful meaningful eye contact, and carefully smacked them upside the head. Then took the dog with me instead.

In Mass Effect 2 I had a similar problem, but this time I was Bugs Bunny and I had Daffy Duck on my team. There are various ammo abilities in the game that, as a soldier, I could level-up to add extra effects, my favourite being the Cryo ammo which had a chance to nullify enemies by encasing them in ice, and if you got a lucky shot, you could then shatter them into a million satisfying pieces, essentially getting a kill for far less ammo than you might otherwise have had to expend. At its maximum rank you can choose to have this ability freeze more often, or instead have it apply to every member of your group; since it already froze enemies on a pretty regular basis, I went for the latter option with the thinking that more people using it would mean more frozen enemies, and indeed that worked wonderfully. The issue came when I was forced to take Jacob along with me for his side mission. I hadn’t used him much on away missions as I didn’t really care too much about him, primarily stemming from the fact that every conversation option about Getting Jiggy With It led to him being all coy and bashful and… YEAH, RIGHT, have you seen my sexy female butt in this officer’s outfit? I’m offering it to you, no questions asked, and you want to talk about it later because you’re unsure? Fine, I’m following Tamarind’s advice and going gay for Garrus instead. Look, I’ve had a placard made up and everything; we’re doing a march around Citadel next Sunday: Garrus Pride.


Not really caring in the slightest for little miss prude pants over there, I hit his auto-level-up button. Which was a mistake, I admit. It turns out that he gets an ammo boosting ability too, one that sets people on fire; a flaming enemy is useful enough, but having both ammo types myself I found the soft control provided by the Cryo ammo to be a far better option. He also, as it happens, had taken the Give This Effect To All Group Members ability. Now, it turns out that you can only have one of the group ammo abilities apply at a time, so you can probably see where this is going. Of course I hadn’t realised that he had this ability, I had just punched the Yeah Whatever level-up option, and got on with the mission. It was shortly after the first fight that I began to wonder why the enemy forces were suffering a large number of flame-based deaths when I had my Cryo ammo set — I was reasonably certain that Flamey Death and Freezey Death were at opposite ends of the F’ing Death spectrum. I checked my gun and, sure enough, I had Inferno ammo set. Curious, never mind, I’ll set Cryo ammo and away we go! Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Fiery Death. F… wait, what? And so it would continue: Set Cryo ammo; enter combat; Freezey Death; Freezey Death; Fiery Death; Swear Loudly.

It didn’t take me too long to realise what was going on, and that there was no obvious way to tell him to turn off his Inferno ammo. I did a quick search on a few forums and all I turned up was a bunch of, y’know, Forum People (imagine that phrase whispered, with that haunted look in one’s eyes, in a tone of voice reserved for use when talking about the criminally insane. Or Right To Roam advocates). The next combat I entered I waited until he had activated his Inferno ammo, overwriting my previously active Cryo ammo, then went in and switched the power off in his power selection bar. Turning my Cryo ammo back on I carried smugly on with the fight. Freezey Death. Freezy Death. Fiery Death. F’ing Death to you Jacob, you git!

I wouldn’t be beaten though, oh no.

It was at this point that we got into the aforementioned Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck battle of wills, as I resolved to pretty much ignore combat and concentrate on turning on my Cryo ammo whenever I saw Jacob turn on his Inferno ammo.

“Cryo season”

“Inferno season”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Ok, good, glad you agree”

“Fuck you, Jacob!”

All the while the enemy is stood around, some looking nervously at each other, others twisting one foot on its side and staring embarrassedly at the sole of their boot as they rock back and forth on it, yet others kicking at stones and suffering that intense moment of panic when they see the stone veer off in the direction of the two idiot humans yelling red-faced at each other on the other side of the battlefield. The humans see the stone whiz past, look up and seem to see the enemy for the first time, and then set the poor unfortunate individual on fire under a hail of Inferno ammo, then just as rapidly extinguish the flames and freeze the poor sod in place, before melting the ice away with a hail of incendiary fire, and so on and so forth, until eventually the poor fellow simply evaporates into a steamy mist and his companions look on in slack-jawed disbelief and wide-eyed horror while the humans go back to arguing with one another.

Thankfully my two regular companions didn’t have such ammo options; even so, I made sure I levelled them up by hand, just in case they tried to sneak a new ammo power in there while I wasn’t looking.

So what makes these Bioware games great? The game design is formulaic within the Bioware RPG genre. The game play is good, but isn’t outstanding by any measure: the cover system in Mass Effect 2 is a great addition, for example, but just doesn’t seem to be as elegant as that found in, say, Gears of War; the cover system is also somewhat infuriating.

“Hah, I see you Mr Enemy, and I shall duck behind this wall and fire from cover, what do you think about that?!”

“Well, I can only commend you on your tactics. I concede that it is a well thought out and thoroughly good plan. I, however, will see your ‘Cover’ and raise you ‘Walking Through A Hail of Bullets and Crowd Control And Just Punching You In The Face While You’re Glued To A Wall And Unable To Attack Me Back’.”

“Touché. And also: Ow, my face.”

There are a number of game play ‘features’ that are undesirable; also, the textures on many of the NPC character outfits look awful to the point of distraction when in a close-up shot, such as in most conversations; and then there’s the planet scanning/probing/mining mini-game. Actually, let’s not go there, that’s a dark place and my counsellor worked so very hard to help me get through it without too much medication. Suffice it to say, if you’re an MMO player it will nearly kill you via your OCD completionist indoctrination, and if you’re not an MMO player then you’ll do the bare minimum to gather the resources you need to complete the game, and remember later that you were quite bored at the time.

So what makes most games journalists froth at the mouth at these Bioware games, because on the whole, if you take a hard look at them, they’re not perfect by any sense of the imagination. My theory is simple, and probably fairly obvious: they tell a good story with your character at the centre of it. That’s it. If Bioware remade Pacman then Pacman would go around trying to recruit pellets to help him, those pellets would refuse to activate his super power unless he helped them find their long lost aunt on the other side of the map, he’d do a bunch of side missions in order to grab some fat fruit loot, and then he’d head in to the final battle with a bunch of ghosts, using his pellet companions to weaken and defeat them, and any pellets he didn’t need to use would come back for Pacman 2. There would be problems with the game play: sometimes pellets wouldn’t activate properly, or Pacman would go off one side of the screen and never come back on the other. However, there would also be a tale woven between all of this, about how our man was the last in the long and noble line of Pac, and that an ancient blight of undead was once again upon the lands and could only be defeated if he discovered how to wield the unknowable Power of Pellet, knowledge long lost to his people in the dim mists of history. Pacman would become a personality to you, because you influenced his decisions on which pellets to get and which paths to take, and therefore you can identify with the character, because that character is, in part, you.

Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience. — Walt Disney

And Bioware’s Pacman would be a magical experience.

There is another company that offers magical experiences, one form of which is the theme park. They have people they call Imagineers who build systems that offer escapism, albeit briefly, into another world. If you look too closely at the rides you can see the wires, the smoke machines, and the rotating mirrors that cause things to appear out of nothing as if by magic. If you sit back, however, and relax into the ride, let the experience wash over you, you find yourself transported somewhere fantastic, and when you come out at the other end you find yourself a little disappointed to find that the world in which you live is somewhat mundane in comparison.

I imagine that Bioware’s version of Imagineers have been busy for some time crafting the Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 experiences, and I find myself joining the back of the already miles-long line of people, breathless in anticipation of my chance to ride on Bioware’s next great digital ride.

We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme. … All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want. — Walt Disney

I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

As we alluded to yesterday there’s a curious element to Mass Effect 2 where the first part of the game involves you running around and recruiting some of the biggest badasses in the universe — don’t make the same mistake as me and run around trying to recruit some of the baddest bigasses in the universe, that’s a different game entirely. Ass Defect 2, probably — and then, having fought your way through the labyrinthine corridors of some random aggressor-filled warehouse/skyscraper/nursing home/factory in order to rescue said badass and free them into indentured service to you, you then spend the rest of the game leaving them to rot in some forgotten corner of the Normandy, only speaking to them every now and again to see if they are willing to offer you a) some equipment upgrades b) a side mission that might offer the chance of equipment upgrades or c) hot steamy intercourse of the third kind, with post-coital equipment upgrades.

The fact that you can only ever take two companions with you is a curious notion which Zoso has previously touched upon for Dragon Age: Origins, and I grant you that its a well known staple of Bioware RPGs, and in fact most RPGs in general. In some instances it works and is understandable — Star Trek episodes would have been a lot shorter if everyone on the Enterprise had just beamed down at once and crushed any opposition with weight of numbers — but in other cases you can’t help but feel that, given the fact that you have an entire ship filled tribble-like to bursting point with badasses, your current mission to fight through overwhelming odds in order to recruit yet another badass would be much easier if you made those odds less overwhelming by simply employing a few more of the badasses currently lounging around your ship picking out their toejam. Or clawjam, depending on species. Or thingyjam, if they have those… you know, ‘thingies’.

Where Mass Effect was a more cohesive whole, Mass Effect 2 starts to feel like two entirely separate games, there’s a tangible dichotomy of combat and conversation. Where the Normandy is a social hub, most away missions involve a fair amount of combat and, unlike Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, you fight all of these missions alone. You see, the thing is, although you are able to take two companions with you on your away missions in Mass Effect 2, when it comes to combat they aren’t really companions, they are merely extra mobile weapons that you can deploy. It’s a curious artifact of the more streamlined shooter experience that Bioware have employed with Mass Effect 2, but you actually fight alone, and once you notice the fact it becomes increasingly obvious the more you play.

A couple of examples to illustrate. There is a standard boss fight at one point, I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that you enter a room, the doors all close behind you (Shock. Horror. Want to buy Door Wedge ability, please and thank you) and you have to fight off the standard waves of enemies before the boss turns up to see what all the fuss is about and you shove a rocket up its backside. And, as per usual, in the pre-boss warm-up there are fast moving weak mobs and a couple of big and slow heavy hitters. I must have played through this section seven or eight times before I managed to win, and I eventually won by realising that I’m fighting on my own. You see, unlike, for example, Dragon Age, if you die in combat in Mass Effect 2 the game is over and you have to reload. Where in Dragon Age you can take over one of your companions and carry on the fight, in Mass Effect 2, if you die – Game Over. So what tactic do you think the enemy (read AI programmers) would sensibly employ in order to ensure victory? Well quite: they ignore your teammates a disproportionate number of times in order to take you down. Honestly, within about five seconds of the start of that boss fight, no matter where I hid and where I placed my team mates, I’d have five of the fast mobs chewing on my very attractive arse, whilst the two big heavy hitters pummelled from range the area of cover I was hiding behind. If I stood up to shake off the fast mobs, the heavy hitters wasted me; if I stayed in cover the fast mobs chewed me a new Omega-4 Relay. There were at least several comedy attempts where I placed my team mates out in open ground in order to distract the mobs whilst I hid, and yet within five seconds of the start of the fight I had fast mobs clinging to me as though we were the inter-species equivalent of Velcro’s hooks and loops; all the meanwhile the big heavy hitters were pummelling my ‘hiding’ place from range, whilst my two companions stood directly in front of them and unloaded submachine guns, shotguns and biotic powers into their general facial region.

Another example that made me boggle and laugh was when I attempted a flanking manoeuvre. It was a standard corridor setup, with a main route through and a little side room that allowed one to sneak to the side of the enemy ‘unseen’. I set my two decoy… companions up to start attacking from cover along the main route, and I snuck around the side. A quick aside: in Mass Effect 2 there are enemy-seeking missiles that can change direction somewhat in order to make sure they’re not wasted and hit a target each time; the enemy has these missiles too. My totem… companions were doing a sterling job of attracting the attention of the various entrenched opposition, and I waited until the more dangerous member of their number had launched a missile at my companions before I burst from cover to launch my flanking assault on their exposed side. At which point, and I kid you not, the missile that was half a metre or so from my companions turned through about ninety degrees and travelled across the corridor to hit me instead; I wish I’d had the presence of mind to hit the screenshot key because the path that the vapour trail of the rocket left behind was a marvel to behold.

It’s not always like that, obviously, but it soon becomes very obvious that there appears to be a heavy bias in the AI to taking down the Game Over objective as a priority over any companions who might otherwise present a more immediate clear and present danger. Once you realise that you’re primarily playing on your own, and that your companions are really just slightly more attractive mobile gun turrets, you can adjust your play style to match and things become significantly easier. I actually think I prefer it this way, I’ve often found myself tiring of the tedious micromanagement required in RPGs where your party members are essentially another character for you to level up and play. Mass Effect 2 makes sure that Shepard is the focus of all things (be it your attention or the AI’s) and as such your companions are designed to not draw your attention away from your own character and story; sure, they all bring stories of their own with them, stories which you can choose to develop or not, but they are characters in their own right, and as such you feel that you can just let them get on with whatever they’re doing and concentrate on what you do best – kicking names and taking ass.

Wait, that’s Ass Defect 2 again, isn’t it.

A life without cause is a life without effect.

Yes, it’s true, I too have been sucked into the universe of Bioware’s Mass Effect once again, where I generally run around enjoying the effects of various projectile weapons on the body mass of various alien species.

‘We come in peace’? Oh please. Allow me to introduce you to my heavily armoured gunship. Pile of charred smoking meat remains this is my gunship, gunship this is… oh, you’ve already met?

So yes, I’m missing the release of Star Trek Online at the moment but feel that, should I want to, I can happily simulate the experience by yanking the power cable out of the back of my PC at random intervals and not allowing myself to plug it back in for three or four hours. ‘Missing’ is probably the wrong word, and ‘avoiding’ is probably more appropriate, possibly with the words ‘like the Phage’ concatenated on to the end.

I imported my previous Mass Effect character into the game, and as I watched the introduction movie I looked forward to seeing the ol’ girl again, and I am willing to admit that I got a little bit emotional in those last few moments of the introduction sequence when you see them out in the silent blackness of space, and all you hear are those breaths…

Sexy breaths.

The character generation screen loaded and I waited those last few moments for my imported character to appear, thinking back with that fondness one often has for one of their virtual partners. I remembered being quite pleased with myself when I created her — I do pride myself on my ability to create a good looking avatar against all the obstacles that some of these Uncanny Valley models seem to throw in the way, and Bioware’s games do allow for some really freaky looking characters, especially when contrasted against the painstakingly and lovingly sculpted avatars of your companion NPCs. I remembered that Aria Shepard was a real looker though, and she was once again going to bring sexy death to the enemies of humanity. Or Uoomanity, if you want to believe the pronunciation of the otherwise splendidly dulcet tones of Martin Sheen’s character, the Invisible Man.

“Commander Shepard, Uoomanity is still in desperate danger.”



“Sorry, one moment, I’m looking for the “Who the fracking frell are the Uoomanity” chat option, but it doesn’t seem to be here”

The character screen loaded.

I’m not quite sure how to convey the horror. Imagine walking up behind a cute little dog of one of the toy breeds, one of those fluffy little things, you know the ones — a cross between Lassie and Winne the Pooh. Now imagine that as you pick it up it turns towards you and you see that it has the face of Margaret Thatcher. And then she/it licks you enthusiastically all over your face.

I quickly rushed back to my old post to confirm that this was indeed an error in the way that Bioware were importing old characters into the new game. But no, she really was the freaky-looking wax sculpture with melted liquorice for hair that was being presented to me now. Fie cruel memory and the tricks that you play! Thankfully Bioware allows you to change the face of your imported character, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played the first few minutes of the game, and so I set about creating a character who didn’t look as though they’d be more at home swinging around the rooftops of Notre Dame.

The funny thing was that, no matter how much I tried not to, I eventually came back to something that looked pretty much the same as my original Shepard. Yes the eyes were slightly tweaked so that they both at least pointed in the same direction, and the nose was toned down somewhat so that it was less likely that Joker would try to accidentally dock the starship Normandy up there, but she had the same overall look as the original. Because this was the virtual woman who I’d shared so many adventures with previously.

The more I looked at her the more attractive she became in my eyes, even though she wasn’t really any different to the Margaret Thatcher Pomeranian cross-breed of earlier. Because, I realised, I liked this person regardless of how they looked, as long as they looked like themself.

“Person”, I thought.

I think this is what Bioware does so well: they create virtual people. Not characters. The reason that the conversation and story is so compelling is that, as with a truly exceptional movie, you forget that the lives you are witnessing aren’t real, that the people who you’re getting emotionally invested in aren’t real. The genius of Bioware, however, is that they manage this by coordinating several people to bring to life one person. Whereas a movie director has to direct just the one actor to bring a person to life on the big screen, Bioware has to direct voice actors and animation artists in order to create life. It’s a fantastic feat, and it helps to lift their RPG games above most other contenders.

Not only that, but they are able to create convincing worlds and even, in the case of Mass Effect, universes that are both familiar and yet at the same time differ wildly from our expectations in many ways. Take the much vaunted Agent Zero of Mass effect 2, a ball-busting no-nonsense lady of no mean combat ability who, with shaven head, a body covered in tattoos, dungarees and overtly aggressive make-up turns out not to be a raging bra-burning feminist lesbian. Honestly, the moment I saw her I thought that, with the right conversation options about how all men are bastards and the liberating empowerment of armpit hair, it was a sure bet that there would be some cravat-exploding interaction between my character and her. “Ah ha!” cries Bioware, “not in this future universe. You’ll never know where you stand with us. Things are different here. Lesbians aren’t what they appear to be”. It’s a strange and confusing place, to be sure; I’ll have to talk it over with Yeoman Kelly Tokenlesbian the newly appointed ship’s counsellor at some point, maybe she can clue me in on how to spot them.

It’s just as unpleasant to get more than you bargain for as to get less.

Another Steam sale arrived this weekend and I once again found myself buying a huge number of games all because they were reduced in price and thus a ‘bargain’. Games are to me as shoes are to Mrs Melmoth: I see her come home with five armfuls of shoe boxes and she then spends the next half an hour telling me how much of a bargain they were. She tells me how cheap this pair was or how expensive that pair was but how much it was reduced by. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a shrewd purchaser of shoes and she gets some real bargains by carefully scouring the shop sales: for the price that some people pay for a single pair of shoes she’ll manage to come home with five or six pairs of equivalent quality. Then, as we all do, she gathers up her mighty pile of trophies, tiny consumerist victories every one, and with great pride she marches up the stairs, opens the door to the bedroom cupboard and shoves them all at the bottom, never to be seen again.

I do the same with games. Steam is my bedroom cupboard floor.

I bought the THQ pack at the weekend. It contains, as far as I can tell, every game THQ ever made and possibly a few games that they didn’t actually make but wished that they had. Why did I buy it? Because it was twenty six pounds and Steam told me it was worth five hundred and seventy two thousand pounds, or something. How could I not buy it? “I mean” – I begin to justify to myself, in that way that I do that means I know that I’m doing something stupid but if I just keep talking to myself for long enough then whatever it is that is stupid suddenly becomes perfectly sensible – “it does have a huge number of games in it that I haven’t played yet”. And at the time I thought myself right, and told myself that I was clearly not mad but in fact a very shrewd purchaser of electronic entertainment products, and that I absolutely should purchase this monumental bargain right now in case THQ/Valve suddenly realised what fools they’d been, oh and here are some endorphins to make you feel good. Mmmm, endorphins.

Of course the actual obvious retort was that I hadn’t played any of these games because, on the whole, I didn’t like any of these games, otherwise I probably would have bought them sooner. As I looked down the list of games that were now cluttering up my Steam interface I realised that Dawn of War II and Red Faction:Guerrilla were probably the only games from the selection that I was realistically likely to play, and then only if I happened to be in some sort of horrendous velcro accident that resulted in me not being able to leave my computer chair for a decade. It was a bargain though, so the endorphins told me that I was vindicated and that I’d ‘won’ over ‘the man’. And of course I totally hadn’t, because ‘the man’ is actually ‘a cliff’ and I am merely one of a large number of lemmings, sore beset by the pressure of temptation, willing to throw myself off the top; and thus I plummeted down and dashed myself against the rocks of reason hiding just beneath the surface of the sea of bargains.

I did pick up a couple of other games though, and although they were reduced in price and thus technically bargains, the fact that I’m playing them both means that they aren’t ‘bargains’ in the traditional sense. Firstly I grabbed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the princely sum of some two whole pounds, for no other reason than, frankly, it would be rude not to. The other game that I bought was the digital deluxe (is it just me or is this the sort of name you give to a vibrator, and not a computer game?) version of Dragon Age: Origins because it was reduced in price; everyone has played it and generally raved about it; and I’ve never, for my sins, completed a Bioware fantasy RPG. I know, I know: gasps of shock, cries of horror, prayers to various gods, a lady in the first aisle faints and has to be carried away, people start to sob and moan and beat themselves about the head in disbelief. I completed Mass Effect, if that helps? Okay, maybe not. I’m rectifying the situation now, though, so you’ll have to be satisfied with that. I’ve played a little way through the game so far and have a few comments already but I’ll save those for another post.

So I bought a few ‘bargains’ at the weekend as well as a few cheap games; I rest content in the knowledge, however, that I didn’t have to leave the comfort of my house to pick up my bargains, that they take up a lot less space, and that piles of them don’t tumble out of a cupboard and try to kill me when I open the door in order to grab a coat.

Previewlet: Torchlight.

Torchlight is to Diablo what Champions Online should have been to City of Heroes.

Where Champions Online inherited many ideas, themes, sound effects and such from City of Heroes, but changed some of the core game-play that made CoH so well loved and tried something new and brave, but which ultimately didn’t really work as well, Torchlight has taken everything that made Diablo great and built upon that with new features that just make the player smile at the simplicity and brilliance of the implementation.

Have no doubt, if you buy Torchlight you are buying Diablo 2.5; there’s the brooding, almost melancholy ambient music that drifts in and out of the periphery of your consciousness as you play through a level, and which is so close a tribute to the Diablo score that if you closed your eyes you might be hard pressed to tell which game was actually running on your PC; the piñata mobs that burst open and erupt loot all over the screen whenever you so much as look at them; scrolls of Town Portal and Identify; the disembodied voice of a strange old man that – slightly creepily – follows you around and provides narrative relief while you take a break from your excessive loot-candy highs. I haven’t found a Horadric Cube yet, but I’ve only played an hour or so. It’s there somewhere, I’m sure.

Games like Titan Quest tried to clone Diablo and tap into that rich vein of Blizzard devotees by presenting something that was familiar to them, whereas Torchlight unashamedly is Diablo, but with an up-to-date graphics engine and additional features that are different and unusual enough to tempt even those virtuous souls who are chastely saving their gaming cherry for Diablo 3. One simple and obvious example of a new and excellent feature is the pet companion that accompanies you everywhere you go, it is far more than a token addition to differentiate the game from others of the same ilk because there is an entire sub-game involved with making the best use of the functions that your pet provides. Suffice it to say that any player familiar with Diablo will feel immediately at home but still have plenty to learn and adapt to.

I haven’t played enough of Torchlight to go into an in-depth reviewlet yet, but the game has certainly impressed upon me enough to warrant mentioning it now, because if there are any of you who are wed to the Diablo series but are perhaps feeling that seven year itch, then Torchlight is quite possibly The Girl to spark your imagination.

Dare I say: it’s quite possibly more Diablo than Diablo 3 will be.

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.