Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection

You might not have heard of these games before, but I assure you that you should have. Ico and its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus are held by many to be two of the finest games ever made. Both developed by the imaginatively named Team Ico and originally released for Playstation 2, they have been remastered and re-released on the Playstation Store, and can be bought separately or as a bundle at notable discount. In truth, it’s difficult, maybe even futile, for me to try to adequately explain the experiences that these games provide. These are the two examples most commonly trotted out when the validity of the video game medium as an art form is being debated, and with good reason; the atmospheric storytelling and emotive power on exhibition are second to none. 

Ico follows the exploits of a young boy named Ico, who is imprisoned in a castle due to being born with horns, seen as a bad omen by his people. Breaking free of his chamber, he tries to escape, encountering along the way Yorda, a girl also imprisoned in the castle. Together, they seek to escape the castle, pursued at every turn by the shadowy minions of the fortresses fearsome queen. In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty straightforward puzzle-platformer; the player controlled Ico must escort and protect the vulnerable Yorda to progress. What makes this game real special is the beautifully crafted atmosphere, and the developing bond between the two characters. Despite the language barrier between them, they come together through handholding and their mutual wish to get away from the castle. Obviously, I’m far too fucking macho to be easily affected by such things, but even I was a little touched by the simple friendship and trust they share. The queen’s shadowy minions will take any opportunity to seize Yorda, and I found myself fiercely protective of her- “Unhand her, you shadowy ruffian!” I would howl, as yet another smoky apparition tried to make off with the frightened girl. That alone is noteworthy- Yorda has to be constantly protected and literally guided by the hand. She is defenceless against enemies and lacks Ico’s climbing and swinging abilities, meaning you have to make lengthy detours to accommodate her. In most games, this kind of escort mission is insufferable, a total pain in the arse; here, I felt genuinely responsible for my charge. 

Shadow of the Colossus offers a very different experience. Players assume the role of a lone warrior, Wander, who seeks to raise his lost love from the grave by defeating sixteen fearsome monsters known as Colossi. These inhabit a barren, hopelessly bleak and forbidden land which Wander traverses on horseback. That’s it, really- sixteen boss battles, punctuated by the journeys from one to the next. It’s an unusual formula, and one that could have fallen flat were it not for the brilliant design of the foes, the unique thrill of each combat and the haunting beauty of the world the player crosses. The colossi are all great lumbering monsters, seemingly made from stone, so the only way to harm them is by climbing over their exteriors and stabbing them in certain weak spots. They’re all unique from one another, and each requires a different strategy to get at the vital spot. A huge amount of work has gone into making these monsters feel just right- the way they move around, the believably heavy thumps of their footfalls and their behaviours in their environments are all brilliantly realised. Maybe the most significant factor in making the colossi feel like real living things is the way they seem to really not want to die. The way they thrash around as you climb over their exteriors, the otherworldly moans of pain when they are injured, the way their big sad eyes look at the camera as you finish them- god damn. I mean, my lawyer has instructed me to state that I am no expert in the matter, but this game makes you feel like a real fucking murderer. The inter-battle exploration segments are similarly believable. The howling of the wind, the rolling, untamed terrain and the drab, bleak colour scheme conspire to evoke the feeling of true, deep wilderness. This isn’t Skyrim or Liberty City, bursting with side missions and secrets, but that’s the point; the lack of life and artefacts on display enhance the lonely wasteland feeling that this world is built to give, and on the occasion that you do find something interesting, it’s all the more so as a result.

The games are from the same developer, and though the storylines are only related by the flimsiest of threads, there are a lot of similarities- the lonely atmosphere, the mystery and otherworldliness. They also share many of the same flaws. There’s a certain clumsiness to the controls, particularly in Ico, that can see you miss vital jumps or strikes. Puzzles in both games often have one and only one solution, which can sometimes be really opaque, especially when you can see a way to progress which is inexplicably ineffective. On more than one occasion, too, the solution is evident but the execution is aggravatingly, infuriatingly and artificially difficult- after spending about ninety minutes in the company of the fifteenth colossus, chipping away at its health eternally while the vulnerabilities stared me in the face, I was ready to snap the fucking disc, which would have been really difficult since this was a digital download. Though the HD remaster treatment has been kind, and the artstyle in both games is great, you can tell they were both originally PS2 games, and, indeed, that Ico was for much of its development intended for the original Playstation- animations and textures are definitely far from cutting edge. Additionally, I found myself dissatisfied with both endings- they felt a little forced, and didn’t give quite the closure I’d have liked, but that might just be me. Nevertheless, these are both fantastic experiences overall- Shadow of the Colossus probably edges Ico out in overall quality, but I would really recommend them both as games everyone in the world should play. The PS3 owners among you should pick this bundle up from the online store, failing that, see if you can pick up a copy for the PS2, since everyone has one of those- hell, ask me nicely and I might dig my PS2 copies from the vault for you. 

As for whether or not these games are bona-fide works of art, as for whether or not any games can be works of art; I’m not sure if I can properly comment. I know a hell of a lot about videogames, and not a lot at all about art. What I will say is this- these games demonstrate the unique ability of games to give the player a deep and genuine involvement in a narrative, something I’ve always been convinced of. I always thought that the complicity and interaction a video game requires of a player makes him a part of the story; it’s not just happening to a character, it’s happening to you. This makes the whole thing that much more effective, and, for my money, is not something other media can do anything like as well. I’d like to think that, if nothing else, lends the medium at least a measure of artistic validity; but, like I said, I don’t know much about art. Certainly, though, these games and others offer experiences that cannot be matched anywhere else.

Shit, look at me all serious-faced, talking about “the validity of the medium as an art form”. What am I thinking? I’ll stick to poop jokes in future. Next up- Crysis PS3. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Modern Warfare 3 Review

Another November, another Call of Duty title. The business model of this huge military-fps series is as regular as my bowel movements, and almost as stinky. Nonetheless, I picked up this year’s release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, along with maybe eighty percent of the human population. I did so with some trepidation, considering my dislike for last year’s, and the worrying events at developer Infinity Ward since the last game, but I was hopeful that it would once again capture the hugely compelling action of the older games. 

some scrubs I'm gonna kill later
Nobody plays these games for the singleplayer, obviously, but since it’s part of the package I played through it, so let’s mention it and get it out of the way. The narrative is mostly stupid, Michael Bay movie shit. It’s the near future, and the big baddie Makarov has, through the events of the past two games, played the powers against one another to cause all out world war. Russia has invaded mainland USA, somehow, as well as most of Europe. The player switches between characters, variously fighting the regular Russian military and Makarov’s personal terror cell. Not a bad setup- a little overt, perhaps, a far cry from the relatively muted, Clancy-style narrative of the original Modern Warfare, but plenty of scope for the high action set-pieces the series is famed for. And action there is, relentless action, with the standard infantryman play interspersed with decent turret sections- exactly the gameplay formula we’ve come to expect. Which is fine, really; it’s a competent formula, and though it’s a little stale by this point, there was no real call for a hotbed of gameplay innovation. That said, I don’t think it comes off as well as the older games. Modern Warfare was never The Elder Scrolls in terms of freeform gameplay, but this game approaches monorail levels of linearity- you follow your boss from setpiece to setpiece, and stray not a fucking inch or you will die. The dreaded quick-time event makes a few appearances as well, perhaps surprisingly a series first. This definitely gets grating- the campaign is not long, clocking in at about six hours on the higher difficulties, but I was bored as all hell by the end. In terms of gameplay, it’s not terrible- it works without any huge bugs I can recall, and everything is at least as polished as a game this heavily recycled should be.
Special mention goes to the finer details of the singleplayer narrative for being the most unrelentingly retarded crap I’ve experienced in years. I’m not asking for Pulitzer Prize shit, here, but holy god damn! Call of Duty 4 set the bar for a storyline that was thrilling without being overtly overt. This game flies an F-22 into the bar, blows up the stadium, and then escapes to Hogwarts on a rocket jetski. I get the feeling the developers were given a list of landmarks to shoehorn in at all costs, and the result is a game that is more like a sightseeing tour than a special operation. Turn your brain all the way off for this one, otherwise it will ask annoying questions, such as-

  • Why is the roof of the New York Stock exchange a good place for jamming equipment?
  • Why are the Paris Catacombs a good place to stage an invading army?
  • Why is there an army of terrorists aboard the Russian president’s plane mid-flight?
  • Why does a 30 second segment need to show dozens of union flags, a red bus, the Houses of Parliament, a football, a red postbox, a red phonebox and Tower Bridge to demonstrate that it takes place in London?
  • Why does the chopper pilot fly into dangerous conditions with no co-pilot to assist him or to operate the cannon, but instead have the player character remotely control the gun using some sort of iPad while fighting on the ground?
  • Why did the developer think that in a post-Team America world it would be okay to, without irony, blow up the Eiffel Tower?
  • Why did I buy this stupid fucking game?

There are no answers to any of these, or the dozens of other head scratching moments, more satisfactory than “because it was kind of cool”.

me headshotting some scrub

Multiplayer is what everyone who’s anyone cares about, of course. Again, it’s outwardly similar to past games- the same progression system, the same weapon mechanics, the same killstreak reward system- veteran players will be immediately at home. It’s the finer details that really let it down. The design of the all new maps is genuinely heinous- they are all small, single-level affairs, highly cluttered with very limited sightlines and an emphasis on spamtastic point blank engagements, nothing like the complex arenas of past MWs. The slight tweaks to weaponry have also had, in my eyes, a negative effect; damage is up, recoil is down. High fire rate weapons are depressingly effective as any gorilla can mindlessly spray his way to victory. Weapon customisation has been needlessly simplified such that instead of completing specific challenges to unlock different upgrades, players simply unlock everything through scoring points with the weapon. The “perk” system that allowed players to choose from a selection of bonus abilities has been reshuffled once more, and it seems to me to no longer offer quite the playstyle variety as in the past. Killstreak rewards, too, have been reorganised. There are now distinct “strike packages” that offer different rewards with different acquisition methods- the Assault package gives the player offensive rewards, typically attacks from aircraft, for the traditional kills without dying model, the Support package grants team-friendly bonuses, without resetting after deaths, and the Specialist package gives the player access to extra perks based on his performance. These fresh features are pretty cool, but between the ease of dying to some lucky scrub and the bizarre skyline clutter that blocks the sightline of support aircraft, killstreaks aren’t nearly as reliable or effective as in MW2. All in all, I think this is the worst Modern Warfare yet, with nothing over its predecessors other than a few UI improvements. Those games were crack cocaine for me, but this shit is like Vege-Crack.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ‘Spec-Ops’ cooperative segment of the game, especially compared to the poor showing from the more staple singleplayer and competitive multiplayer parts. Split into Missions, where players must complete a set task or scenario, and Survival, where they fend off ever more ferocious waves of enemies for as long as possible. Playable splitscreen or online, it’s very competently executed, and quite compelling. Missions are usually under ten minutes long, but if you die you are put back to the very start. There’s a really strong one-more-go mentality with these, and you’ll find yourself discussing tactics and manoeuvres to get to the finish. I’m not sure if there’s quite the same variety as MW2’s coop missions, nor the same steady increase in challenge, but there’s plenty of fun to be had with these. Survival mode is also really cool, doubtless an acknowledgement of the Treyarch games’ hugely popular zombie mode. It’s the standard waves-of-foes gameplay you’d expect, with weapons, equipment and air support requisition points to summon extra gear with the cash you earn for killing enemies. These are linked to an unlock system akin to multiplayer- what you can call in depends on your experience level. I’m not sure it works as well here, especially in the splitscreen context- I had giant machine guns and automated sentries while my buddy was forced to make do with only an ancient shotgun. Still, it adds a bit of depth, and replayability, which might otherwise be lacking. The survival mode is let down a little by being stuck on the same horrible maps as multiplayer, however. Seriously, these maps are shit.

 me killing some other scrub

There’s also the Call of Duty Elite thing, I guess? It’s like a stat tracker, I think, and also a delivery system for CoD related content. I had a look at it, though I don’t really see the point. You can look at some really detailed statistics, and watch policemen play MW3 with firemen, apparently. You can also buy a subscription that unlocks enhanced features and includes access to all the map packs and other DLC as they become available, which they haven’t at the time of writing. I don’t really know what to say about it. It works fine, with a smooth if a little confusing interface in the console application, so maybe it’s of use to someone? 

Modern Warfare 3, then, is about what I was expecting. It’s pretty competent in design, if flawed in places, full featured and pretty well polished. The engine tech was a little dated when it was used in CoD4, and there’s not been much changed since then- it’s definitely not cutting edge technically, especially compared to competition like Battlefield 3. It’s a by the numbers Modern Warfare game, basically just this year’s instalment. Personally, I don’t like it nearly as much as I did the first two. Those felt like games the creators wanted to make; this feels like one the accountants wanted. That’s not exactly surprising- while it’s possible that the creative talent at Infinity Ward remained in their comfy jobs during the staff exodus, and the jobsworth hangers-on jumped ship to the newly founded and unproven Respawn, my money’s on the reverse. Frankly, there is a pervading stink of playing it safe, simplification and of pandering to the low-skill, casual player who has become the target audience. CoD4 multiplayer was enjoyed by the casual gamer as it was straightforward and compelling, but also by the hardcore neckbearded asshole like me because of its depth and variety. MW3 will be enjoyed by the casual gamer because it was made purely with him in mind.