Adbox 1

Monday, 31 March 2014

Thief (2014).

Thief (2014).

Thief is an odd duck.

By 'odd', what I mean is, more or less, 'not very good, and in a very strange way'. I don't want to say that producing a new iteration in a well-loved series with heavy nostalgia value is easy, because there are always about twelve thousand fans waiting to scream that you've ruined it forever, but it does mean you have a frame of reference as to what said fans like, what they maybe think could be improved upon, etc. You have a lot of the groundwork with which to make an excellent game.

Worse still, what makes it bad isn't that it is overly difficult, or that its gameplay elements aren't implemented competently, or even that the plot is bad (although it is most certainly uninteresting). What makes it bad is that there's just not much there, in terms of gameplay, difficulty curve or, well, anything.

In every mission, you are dropped into The City, the game's steampunk Victorian/Late Middle Ages grimdark setting, in an area usually utterly indistinguishable from any other part of the The City. You are given a marker on your screen to get to: You are meant to do this stealthily.

Except, you don't really have to: That marker doesn't show your overall objective, it just shows the next point at which you won't be able to go backwards – and the next point at which guards won't follow you even if they know you're there. If those markers were far apart, that would still represent a considerable challenge, but each one is maybe twenty metres away from the last, at most. With such a short distance between them, you don't have to bother being stealthy: You don't have to bother with anything. You can just jog from one marker to another, casually alerting every guard in the area, because as soon as you hit that glowing mark, they'll forget about you and wander away.

It's a realisation I came to at the beginning of Chapter 2, and it kills the game utterly. A better stealth game might be able to weather that particular issue, but the stealth in Thief is, while not awful, often very flawed indeed. Frequently, if you're trying to take a stealthy path above your foes, the game will scream 'NOPE' and compel you to go onto the ground, so that you can dodge pools of light and throw pots to distract guards. It's not intentional, or at least it doesn't seem to be: The problem is, instead, that it is an incredibly linear game, and there's only one path you can take – and since the game desires that you be able to play it however way you want, that has to be a path that can be taken stealthily or can bring you into contact with guards to hit with your club.

('Play it however way you want' combined with 'wholly linear' and 'almost no difficulty', of course, seems to translate to 'abject game developer terror that anybody would protest that this game is too difficult, or that the difficulty curve is too steep.' I'm a big advocate of game developers providing a way for players to keep playing the story even if they're struggling with a particular part of the game – whether that's a system like Bioshock Infinite, where you return to life if you die but your slain enemies do not; or a system like Red Dead Redemption that lets you skip sections if you keep failing at them – but this is a very clumsy way of doing that.)

It's necessary, I think, for me to make a comparison with a much better stealth game. Dishonored, one of my all time favourite games, had a 'play how you want' idea behind it as well: But it backed up that idea with non-linear levels where you could take any of a dozen or more paths to reach your objective, and a range of powers which could vastly alter your play style. Even under the broad umbrella of 'stealth', you could take a high path along the rooftops and balconies of the city, circle around a building until you found a window into where your target was, and sneak in and kill them; or you could take a low path, maybe possessing a fish to swim through a plumbing system into a kitchen, and then sneaking your way upstairs, luring your target out, and killing them behind a set of screens. Or you could eschew stealth altogether, make as much noise as possible, and cheerily murder anyone in your path.

There was a genuine sense of urgency and terror when guards caught you too – battles were frenetic, confusing and alarming, leaving you either desperately trying to escape and hide, or desperately trying to summon a horde of plague rats to devour anyone who comes near you, depending on just how bloodthirsty you were.

The game provided you with an objective, obstacles, and self-contained but otherwise fairly open level maps, and told you to do what you liked with them. Youtube holds testament to some of the interesting things players did with that.

Thief, alas, never comes close to that, nor to the heights of its predecessors in the Thief series. Which is a shame: Done well, stealth games can be incredibly satisfying, and it grates that a franchise that was once so positively received should have such a poor entry in it.

Still, there's always Thief 5. Probably. Inevitably, really. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea.

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea.

This review contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, Episodes 1 and 2.

A thing that is unjust: That Bioshock Infinite, a rare gem of a game with a unique and engaging storyline that combines cutting political and historical satire with a personal narrative that is alternately charming and heartwrenching, and adds to that a gorgeous setting and fine gameplay, should not go home with as many Video Game BAFTAs as The Last of Us, a game whose main selling point is that it takes the twin cliches of 'rugged man escorting innocent girlchild' and 'zombies first-person-shooter' and mashes them together like a brony and a local farmer's horse.

But my dissatisfaction is mitigated slightly by the fact that, with yesterday's release of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode 2, the Burial at Sea DLC which caps off Ken Levine's involvement in Bioshock (and might signal the end of the franchise altogether) is now complete.

The first striking thing about the DLC is that it's nearly as long as a regular video game. Both episodes together weigh in at about six hours – potentially longer if you take the time to explore the many nooks, crannies, and locked rooms scattered about both episodes. That's a play time bordering on an AAA game, albeit a very short one – the last time I saw that happen was with Dishonored's Daud DLCs.

Both episodes are well-crafted but markedly different. In Episode 1, you play as Booker DeWitt, the player character of Infinite – but this is an alternate Booker, one who has taken up work as a private investigator in Rapture, the underwater Objectivist utopia (read: hellhole horror city) of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. After the end of work for a day, he is visited by a noir femme fatale version of Elizabeth, your companion and helpful item-thrower-and-interdimensional-portal-opener of Infinite, with a job for him: There is a girl gone missing, and Elizabeth wants her found.

Thus begins a short but immensely fun adventure that takes Booker and Elizabeth through a pre-fall Rapture, as they attempt to steal a mask to enter a party (a process that involves gruff, tough-as-nails noir Elizabeth breathlessly extolling the virtues of abstract artwork in a hilarious ruse) and then down into a sunken department store that has been re-purposed as a prison, to fight their way through the superpowered drug addicts there.

All of Episode 1 plays as a love letter to the noir genre – both film noir and the works of Raymond Chandler and others – and it hits its noir beats perfectly, adapting them to Rapture's gorgeously decadent underwater setting perfectly. The episode finishes with a startling but well-foreshadowed plot twist, too, one that leaves you wanting more: Luckily for me, I was a latecomer to the Burial At Sea party, having bought it on Steam during a sale, so Episode 2 was due to come out in only four days.

Episode 2 drops you into the role of Elizabeth: No longer the helpful escort who keeps you from dying, she is now in the main role, with no escort of her own save a disembodied voice. The gameplay is startlingly different from that of Episode 1, or the Bioshock series in general: At first, at least, it's far more stealth-based. While giving the only female protagonist in the series a stealthier gameplay style leaves a slightly poor taste in my mouth, it makes some sense: She's not a genetically enhanced ubermensch like Jack, a cyborg monster in a diving suit like Delta, or a trained soldier and mercenary like Booker – she is, as she points out, a bookworm.

The stealth doesn't last long, anyway. Before long, I had found enough guns and ammo with Elizabeth to comfortably kill most people who strayed into my path – and not long after that, I found the Radar Range, a weapon unique to Elizabeth. The Radar Range, a device that looks like a portable electric fan, fires beams of microwaves that rapidly kill people or, if trained on them for a long time, makes them explode and kills everyone around them. It swiftly became my favourite weapon, and I continued using it – along with a few brief flirtations with the Hand Cannon – until the end of the game.

I challenge anyone to do otherwise. It's a microwave emitter. It makes people explode. More than once, I drew chastisement from my playing companion for just cheerfully burning everyone who looked at me funny. I regret none of it.

In contrast to Episode 1's short noir story, Episode 2 is longer (it took me about four hours to finish it), and not really noir at all: Instead, it serves as a swan song for Bioshock, bringing back a whole host of past characters, in both cameos and major roles, and ultimately tying all three games together.

It also affected me quite deeply. Episode 1's ending left me shaken. Almost the entirety of Episode 2 left me alternately hurting alongside Elizabeth and deeply impressed at her: Not only does she demonstrate a hard-as-nails toughness that would put Booker to shame (I jest, it'd make him extremely proud), but also a sparkling intellect and a deep nobility of spirit. These are all qualities we saw from her in Infinite, but Burial At Sea takes them to a new level: Elizabeth's resolve is constantly tested (including in one scene that is more overtly brutal than anything a Bioshock protagonist has faced), and she is constantly presented with temptation to stray from her mission, and she continues nevertheless. It's a story which is both classically heroic and deeply human, and her success at the end is both uplifting and deeply bittersweet – made more so by the fact that as the game wound towards its finale, I became increasingly unsure as to whether she would succeed. 

(For striking moments, special mention to the bizarre Parisian dream sequence in the beginning, which starts off with famous artists giving Elizabeth paintings, progresses on to random Frenchmen complimenting her, then progresses on to birds landing on her fingers and singing along to the background music, and ends with fire, rain, screaming and death.)

The two episodes together are a triumph of storytelling, and like Bioshock Infinite are fine examples of why people who proclaim video-games to not be art are wrong and should feel wrong. If this is the end of Bioshock – and I hope it isn't while at the same time thinking that if future installments can't live up to the legacy set by Infinite and Burial At Sea, they maybe shouldn't bother – then it was a fine and worthy ending.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes.

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes.

Point and click adventure games are where I got my start gaming, and in the lieu of particularly varied or breathtaking gameplay, where they shine tends to be in the charm factor (here's reason why Tim Schafer's games are so popular, the man has charm oozing out of his ears), where the nonsensical whimsy of them draws you in.

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes, is the perfect example of that kind of charming whimsy. Playing as Lilly, a sweet and virtuous convent school student, you set out to free your friend Edna from the clutches of the Mother Superior and evil psychiatrist Doctor Marcel. Over the course of the game, you manage to murder almost everyone at your convent school and several people in the town beyond, and must navigate both the confusing and nonsensical puzzles and a series of mental blocks – rules like 'don't contradict adults' – enforced by robotic rabbits, that can only be removed by passing into a strange mirror world. As the game goes on, you leave the convent school, pass through the town beyond, and finally head to the asylum where Edna was once a patient, all the while accompanied by a soothing and often sarcastic narration.

The gameplay is smooth and fluid, but more or less everything you'd expect from a point-and-click adventure game, with a few twists: In the second and third acts, when mental blocks come into play, only one block can be switched off at any one time, requiring strategic thought; and at several times during the game the gameplay radically changes, such as during the 'final boss battle' with the Mother Superior, where the game morphs into a JRPG-style chess-esque battle.

But the game's story shines. It's a fairly simple yarn about Lilly helping Edna escape, but there isn't a dull or unamusing moment in the game, and the dialogue and situations cross from 'amusing' to 'laugh out loud hilarious' very frequently, and often in very unexpected ways. The opening act, in which through a series of 'accidents' you slaughter your way through the entire student body of a convent school (along with a clown and a historian) with Lilly blissfully oblivious to the bloodshed, was one of the most strikingly hilarious things I've seen in a game for a while, and it was fun to see how everyone would die become loomingly obvious, even as the game cheerfully refused to admit what was happening.

While point-and-click adventures, if not well-written, can start feeling stale fast, Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes constantly keeps things fresh and interesting. There are a few surprisingly prescient jokes there too, like when a robotic rabbit remarks that suitable places for children include 'a Rolf Harris concert'. The game was released four months before Harris' arrest.

It's an underrated gem of a game, and one which you should check out on Steam if you have sixteen pounds to spare. While people have been holding Broken Age up as an example of an excellent modern point-and-click, in my opinion Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes fits that description much better – no offence, Schafer. I still love you. We shall be wed at dawn.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

As one note, I will repeatedly refer to Lightning Returns as XIII-3 in this review. Square-Enix made this bizarre numbering system, they can't drop it now just because it's getting silly.

With that said: The Final Fantasy XIII games are not very good.

Actually, they're really quite bad, on the whole. XIII had an utterly incoherent story interspersed between long periods of walking down corridors and pressing the 'A' button repeatedly; XIII-2 was cut from much the same cloth, and frustratingly its story – a convoluted yarn about time travel, chaos and parallel universes – had nothing to do with XIII's story about angelic interference, free will and a floating civilisation.

So coming up to XIII-3, a game which promised incoherent story, terrible gameplay and a ticking timer in the corner counting down how much time you had left before the game would just scream 'WRONG' and shut down on you, my hopes were not exactly sky high.

Having played it, my final verdict is that it's … okay.

It's never going to be amongst my top ten games. Or my top twenty. But having gone into it firmly set on hating it, I found the game growing on my quite quickly. The gameplay is a vast improvement on its predecessors, being more open world and having a battle system which involves choice and strategy, rather than just hitting the same button repeatedly. The plot is as disjointed and incoherent as its predecessors, maybe more so, and yet again has nothing to do with the previous games in its series (in this game, our protagonist Lightning has been appointed by God to save souls in preparation for the end of the world), but it had some interesting ideas which, in the hands of more skilled writers, could have amounted to a very interesting storyline.

It's odd, because it really should be a bad game. The ticking clock in the corner provides an unpleasant and unnecessary amount of pressure which saps out fun like a leech saps blood, but the varied gameplay and often not badly written sidequests manage to just tip it over the line into fun and engaging, especially when you do what I did and prepare an itinerary before every play session.

(The fact that I felt I had to do that is a problem, though, make no mistake.)

As a side note, Jesus Christ, what went wrong with Lightning's redesign? Why was there not an intervention? Why is Tetsuya Nomura still designing characters? For those who have not seen it, it involves a backless leather corset with incorporated shoulderpads over a backless leotard, double sideskirts, thigh high boots, and a cape. It is the most absurd thing I've ever seen. 

The whole package comes together as a game which isn't great, and is riddled with problems, but isn't bad per se, at least if it's judged by the standards of mindless entertainment rather than art. What it is, however, is considerably lower in quality than what we might expect from the Final Fantasy series: The XIII series' immediate predecessor, XII, was a game that, while flawed, was undeniably excellent, combining interesting (if in need of fine-tuning) gameplay with a story that is best described as the child of Game of Thrones and Star Wars if written by Shakespeare and filtered through the entire Final Fantasy series prior to it. X, which came before that, was a fine if also imperfect game.

The XIII games have consistently represented a tremendous low point for the series, and while XIII-3 is an improvement, on account of the fact that it's actually enjoyable, it's not good enough to redeem this whole chunk of games.

I also have to wonder about why there's more than one XIII game in the first place. The plots of all three games have only tangential relations to each other, and often the process of linking any events in their storylines is a tortured and muddled task. That these games have been made into a trilogy, rather than each one standing on its own as separate Final Fantasy installments, seems less like good storytelling and more like an attempt to rescue the reputation of XIII – an attempt that more or less cripples XIII-2 and XIII-3.

It's a bewildering choice in an otherwise very celebrated franchise's history, and I'm rather glad that chapter of said history is over. Or ostensibly over: E3 is coming up, after all. Maybe Square-Enix's announcement will be 'Lightning Forever: Final Fantasy XIII.'?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The New Patrol by Andy McNab.

The New Patrol.

It was a mistake saying that I might review the sequel to Andy McNab's The New Recruit, and oh, what a mistake it was.

The New Patrol, Andy McNab's second Liam Scott 'thriller' (and I use scarequotes because I am so far from being thrilled that the light from thrill will not reach me for several million years) begins with no less than four pages of glossary, plus two pages of maps, and here we come to my first major bugbear with the book: If you require one page of a glossary, let alone four, then you need to re-examine your writing. Even when dealing with specialised subject matter, you should be able to contextualise and exposit such that an audience can pick up or infer the meanings of the words, or in this case acronyms, in question. To not be able to do so, to the point that you require a reference sheet, is a basic failure in storytelling.

But oh, how Andy McNab loves his acronyms. How he loves and cherishes them, and uses them with careless abandon to give us long spiels about guns. Observe:

The weapon's accuracy was enhanced by the fitting of the ACOG, which Liam had used a few times before heading back out to Afghanistan. That and the LDS were replacing the older SUSAT sights and were significantly more capable.”

With the first two days of RSOI done, Liam pushed on through the rest of the training. This covered dealing with IEDs, working patrol, understanding Afghan culture and vehicle drills.”

Neil's weapon was the L11543 rifle. Firing an 8.59mm round, it had improved range over its predecessor, the L96.”

He checked over the GPMG. Capable of 750 rounds a minute, and with a range of up to 1800 metres, the L7AT General-Purpose Machine Gun was the infantry workhorse.”

Are you thrilled yet? Remember, this is a thriller, it says so on the front cover and everything, and yet the dry descriptions of guns continue to leave me unthrilled (said the actress to the gun enthusiast bishop).

Beyond that, many of the problems with The New Recruit are magnified ten times over in The New Patrol. The bland characters of The New Recruit, so unmemorable that McNab manages to confuse two of them early on, are replaced by an entirely new cast of characters that are just as boring and exactly the same as the previous set, leaving me to wonder precisely why he gave himself the busywork of finding new names.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Almost all the characters in The New Patrol are dull smears of beige – three characters actually stand out as being passably interesting. They're never going to be amongst literature's greats, but they have personalities, which is frankly more than can be said for anybody else.

They are Nicky, a female medic (and people who read my review of The New Recruit will recall my distaste for the total lack of women, so the inclusion of one pleased me) who never really gets any character development but whose snarking and sarcasm was a refreshing change from the utterly boring 'dark humour' (and McNab feels the need to remind us in narration that this is dark humour whenever it turns up, which is understandable given how flat it is) utilised by most of the cast; Zaman, an affable Afghan bomb disposal expert, whose life frankly sounds far more interesting than the book we got; and the chaplain, who shows up for about two chapters and is friendly, mild-mannered, and deceptively badass, although McNab succeeds in making that weird by having one chapter end on character's singing his praises, framed as if it was some kind of cliffhanger.

Similarly, like The New Recruit, the plot never really gets going, and any time it looks like something interesting is going to happen – a mortar attack on Camp Bastion, a visit by a Cabinet politician, etc – it swiftly gets swept under the rug after McNab uses it to give a dreary three page diatribe on whatever talking point he has settled on for that chapter. There are a lot of talking points: The worth of the Territorial Army, the worth of chaplains, whether a civilian government should give orders to a military, and they are jammed into the text with all the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop, if the bull was on fire and screaming the contents of an Ayn Rand book.

By the time the plot – a slightly contrived story about a mole – materialised four fifths into the book, I was fairly sure I had spent more time hearing about McNab's views on practically everything than I had actually reading a story. The plot, when it finally appears, has potential, but it comes to a resounding stop as soon as it starts, with all of the suspects being cleared and the mole having been revealed to be some guy we had never met nor even heard of until now. We never get his name. We never see him. The revelation of his treachery is delivered in a two paragraph section of dialogue by Zaman almost at the very end.

The New Recruit was disappointing, but I could see how if you had a burning interest in the genre you might read it for a few hours on the train and not feel like you've wasted time you could have spent elsewhere. The New Patrol meanwhile, is a bad novel. It is not good. It is not a thriller. It is not even a story, it's just a setting, some characters, and Andy McNab's endless, tedious diatribes. The worst thing is there's more to come – we can expect to see the third Liam Scott thriller sometime soon, which I assume will mostly involve the characters stroking their rifles and reciting Daily Telegraph articles.