Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Games I Liked in 2011, Part Two - “Human After All?”

A continuing look at games that I really liked, but not quite as much as WWE All Stars, in the year of our Lord 2011.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution  Hehehee, I wrote tiny rude things on this arm
“He’s more machine now than man” – Benjamin Kenobi
The Deus Ex series is about two things: the meeting of man and machine, raising the question of whether developing and getting stronger means losing your humanity, and, famously, freedom. You’re handed a level, one small chunk at a time, and asked how you’d like to approach it.

To use the immortal Terminator 2: Judgment Day as an example – will you be the T-1oo0, infiltrating into your enemies’ homes and then running them through with razor-sharp arm blades? Or maybe an Arnie-style terminator, toting a mini-gun and launching maniacally as you bat away incoming rockets? Or the pacifistic PoNY-3000 (which only features in the version of the film that exists inside my head) preferring to just be friends, avoid the violence altogether… and putting the odd person to sleep if you really, really must?

Like our last game, playing Human Revolution, you can feel the gravity of the seminal original, but in this case it's a much looser adaption. Deus Ex was, after all, made by entirely different people over a decade ago. Born into our modern world of third-person cover and DRM, where everything has to be a shooter, it was only natural that this would be a very different game.

Still, as much as Human Revolution throws out from the original – it rewinds the plot to the immediate future, ditching the whole cast in the process, trades in the grey and blue colour scheme for black and gold – it holds onto more. The cyberpunk setting, the customisable Six Million Dollar Man-style augmentations, the philosophical leanings. Most of all, it holds onto that idea of choice. Each level has a startpoint and an endpoint, but how you get from one to the other is up to you. There are connecting doors which skip out sections of corridor; ladders which take you to the roof, far above the action; ventilation shafts to crawl in.

So that, then, is the core essence of Deus Ex. An overarching plot about control and loss of humanity, propping up a game that invites you to do what thou wilt. It’s not necessarily the most natural combination. But, for me at least, the way that freedom works is a perfect expression of the theme.

It turns out, given all that choice, something flips deep inside me. I can’t choose – won’t, shan’t – and so end up searching for the most obscure route, the one they’ve hidden behind a series of crates and down a pit you can only access with the augmentation that negates fall damage. Then I’ll backtrack, and find another way I could have done it.

I want to see the puzzle the developers have crafted for me from every possible angle. I have to see everything, I have to interact with everything, hack everything, (for a first-person action game, Deus Ex gives you a lot more possible verbs than just ‘shoot’, ‘jump’ and ‘stand out in the open until you die’), find every hidden vent, pick up every item.

I’m not even a robot. I’m a hoover.
Hehehee, I wrote tiny rude things on this arm
It could be more open, of course. For all those extra verbs I mentioned, Human Revolution still manages to be slightly more limiting than the original Deus Ex, now over a decade old. It turns its attention instead to being slicker. The amount of thought that has gone into making the world futuristically plausible and beautiful, the nicely honed controls, the fact it actually has a story and some characters… there’s a lot of stuff to love here, even for hardened Deus Ex purists.

A good example of this trade-off can be seen in the item glow – any object that can be interacted with has its edges picked out with a fuzzy gold light. It highlights how much scenery is decorative, tied down, and the relatively limited interactivity. No strength rating here. I believe it was mildly controversial, and can be turned off in the options menu, but I see no need. It fits nicely into the game’s aesthetic, makes diegetic sense, and makes it easier to spot hidden items and routes, which is exactly what my lizard brain wants. And it couldn’t possibly break the hypnotic effect a play session has over me.

Human Revolution is one of those games that makes you constantly late. The type you struggle to tear yourself away from, a mysterious substance keeping your hands glued to the controller (…Oh, not like that. Ew. Grow up.) And the team at Eidos Montreal use the compelling systems of the game to immerse you in a sci-fi world stronger, even, than Portal 2's playful series of ideas - one which extrapolates headlines, technology, architecture and even fashion into something plausible and enticing.

And, even after I’ve managed to power down the Xbox, a dip into that world leaves me seeing our own a little differently. Like the long sessions of Guitar Hero that translated all my dreams into five-colour blocks, like the week I longed for my own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Like… a post-Christmas weekend back home, most of it spent with my nose pressed to the 38” flatscreen, controller in hand. It’s a nice day outside, and I almost feel bad about not leaving the house. Almost. I look out into the back garden, just as the sun clips the top of the fence. Its glow catches the edges of a shirt, hanging on the line, outlines it with a sharp halo of --gold. Ooh, I think. It must be interactive.
Hehehee, I wrote tiny rude things on this arm

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Games I Liked in 2011, Part One - "Harder, Better, Faster, Longer"

So, in the pub the other week, conversation swung to the best pop culture of last year, naturally. When asked about my ‘game of the year’, I refused to pick a single game. Further pushed, I picked WWE All Stars. It was a choice born partially of the thrilling novelty of such a pop/obscure pick, partially of intoxication, but mostly of total honesty.
It is a choice behind which I will of course stand. It’s also a choice which got me thinking about how hard it was (and almost always is) for me to pick a single Best Game, and how I've completely failed to write anything about any of my favourites from last year.
Consider this, then, a loose tour through all the games I really enjoyed last year, accompanied with some hand-drawn doodles, and why exactly WWE All Stars was the absolute Best Game of 2011. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s jump back to April, and take a look at…

Thinking with Portals

Portal 2

As the name suggests, Portal 2 was a sequel, with all the baggage that entails. Worse, it was a sequel to a truly brilliant game. The original Portal took a wonderful central concept - a gun that could shoot teleporting holes into walls - and expressed it perfectly, compressed into two and a half hours. On top of that, it added a classic antagonist in GLaDOS, some of the best jokes in gaming, and a song. It was a revolution, practically inventing the first-person puzzling genre, that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Portal 2 wasn't much of a surprise at all. Like all good sequels, it didn't move away from the core principles of the original, but built on them. It kept the same setting - a series of test chambers in the Aperture Science laboratory. The same cast – silent Chell, ever-taunting GLaDOS. The same mechanics – solving spatial puzzles using your portal gun. It took all those, and then built on them.

So, a journey beneath Aperture's floors revealed the ruins of cavernous testing grounds from its past. The bumbling AI Wheatley (played by Stephen Merchant) and self-confident ghost of Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) filled out the dramatis personæ. And the portal puzzles were expanded with physics-altering gels which could be guided through test chambers to make surfaces slippy, or bouncy.

Image

Most of it all, it adapted Portal's attitude and structure: a highly polished series of puzzles, bookended by chunks of narratives, with jokes. Portal 2 avoided the obvious pitfalls - pandering to the memes the original bred and sent out onto the internet; trying to turn the plot into something of world-shaking import; trying to repeat the surprise of that song - but, ultimately, it was more or less the same thing, stretched out and with some fancy bits added on.

Which sounds really negative, but clearly that's not the case. This is one of my favourite games of last year. Familiarity makes its structure – a series of chambers, bookended with a joke or bit of story – stick out a little too awkwardly, but it's a better game than the original Portal in almost every way.

Handheld Portal Device

It takes its extended length as virtue, providing more of an actual, story-shaped story, and a wider variety of settings and puzzles. Most impressively, Portal 2 manages to keep its difficulty curve every bit as smooth over those extra hours, with every new discovery telegraphed neatly and then built upon, and rarely repeats itself.

I’d even argue Portal 2 is actually a funnier game. The jokes in the original mostly worked because they took the player by surprise. Abandoned laboratories are not a setting you expect to find jokes in, sci-fi puzzle games aren’t a genre renowned for their hilarity. It was a sort of comedy ambush. Portal 2 knows you know this, going in, and cuts loose with the jokes from the first comedy setpiece, which sticks you in a motel room and indulges in a spot of fourth-wall breaking ‘press A to speak’ action, all curated by Wheatley – the noisy robo-comic to your silent straight man, and every bit the equal of GLaDOS.

Wheatley

It’s definitely the best written and acted game I played last year, and is in the running for best written and acted piece of 2011 culture full stop. It’s certainly the funniest.

As a package, Portal 2 is so sharp that you hardly even notice its elegance until afterwards. When you do, it becomes clear how much silliness we have to put up with, how often people accept that the voice acting wasn’t too uneven this time as if that was something worth celebrating, how merely quite good plots have champions of the medium wetting themselves with excitement.

Portal 2 is a darn good puzzle game. It’s not half bad as science-fiction. But mostly importantly, it is simply the funniest comedy game I have ever played. If it hadn't been for that pesky original, Portal 2 could've had a shot at being the best game of all time.
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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.