Did You Ignore The Black Ops Single Player?

You did, didn’t you? Come on, admit it. You went straight onto the multiplayer and started working your way up to Prestige. Maybe you played some Zombies with a couple of friends. But you didn’t play the campaign did you? Oh no, single player isn’t relevant in Call of Duty is it?

Well actually yes, it is. I wrote on Twitter recently that I thought the campaign portion of Black Ops was the strongest in the series, and I stand by that statement. Yet, it still seems to be largely discredited by the masses. I’ve heard a couple of comments lately from people I respect who didn’t seem to be having as much fun as I was. So, in the interest of trying to qualify my outlandish claims, I thought it might be useful to examine the issue in more depth.

My good friend and fellow blogger Daniel Hart expressed his concerns when playing the game, and he made a valid point. His problem was that the game took control away from the player far too frequently. I’ve spoken before about the interactive nature of gaming and how it gives the medium uniquity, and taking that privelege away reduces the immersion.

The general consensus is that the campaign plays it a little too ‘safe’. It doesn’t offer anything new or develop the tried-and-tested formula in any meaningful way. It certainly doesn’t provide a gameplay experience we haven’t seen before. Then again, the level of refinement is admirable, and I can’t help but use the term I really hate to use when describing video games, and that’s ‘cinematic’.

The main draw of blockbuster action movies is that they provide a comfortable feeling of escapism, exploring the typical ideas of power, wealth, popularity and attractiveness that are synonymous with mainstream action heros, then letting the viewer (albeit temporarily) assume ownership of that role. Video games take it one step further by allowing the player to have a measurable impact on what they’re watching; feeling and seeing immediate repurcussions of their choices and actions, which is what people in the business call agency.

Black Ops really does have that whole action movie vibe going on. By assuming the role of a combatant, you accept the natural associations of danger, courage and selfless heroism that go with it. Taking control out of your hands every now and again to let your character get knocked back by an explosion or strangled by a Vietcong does something that aids in the credibility of the illusion: it reinforces the idea that you’re not in control; that in the grand scheme of global conflict you’re insignificant and powerless, and that warrants a far greater emotional investment than, say, Medal of Honor.

As I said earlier in this post, nothing about Black Ops feels fresh or original, but that’s half the appeal. It’s iterative; unconcerned with radicalising the genre or advancing the gameplay of the previous titles in the series, but rather fully-focused on enhancing the high-octane experience it knows it can provide.

Most missions in the game are simple flashbacks being narrated by the protagonist, and the whole thing is little more than a narrative framing device; an excuse to take the player to lots of locations and time periods on varied styles of mission. The plot is solid to enough to encourage questions of the “who, what, where, why” variety, though it’s importance is questionable. The real focus here is the missions themselves.

Treyarch wanted to craft a campaign that was interesting, varied and accessible. Something people could jump in to and enjoy without the weight of moral choice, role playing or alternate endings, and they did that with commendable style and vigour. Multiplayer is, and probably always will be, the primary selling point of the franchise, but at least give the single player a chance. You never know, you might even like it.


Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta

So once again we slip into the blood-stained sandals of Kratos, pasty Spartan maniac and anti-hero of the God of War franchise, who’s once again busying himself being an absolute bastard to everyone he meets and getting some more Underworld stamps in his passport.

Ghost of Sparta is the sixth game in the series and the second portable incarnation, once again developed by Ready at Dawn, the development team responsible for God of War: Chains of Olympus and Daxter on the same system, as well as the Wii version of Okami. After realising that Chains of Olympus was too short and too shit, the studio decided to have another go at things, crafting a new adventure set between the events of God of War 1 and 2.

The story this time around is a much more personal one, with dear old Kratos searching for his lost brother, Deimos, whose existence everyone has suddenly started to acknowledge. The quite drastic shift from rabid vengeance to caring rescue is interesting, and the plot as a whole does a reasonably good job of fleshing out Kratos’ backstory and motivations. Some may argue that a character who headbutts minotaurs doesn’t need much characterisation, but it’s nice to see the series accepting what it’s good at and moving into new narrative territory.

On the subject of what God of War excels at, the gameplay is, while largely unchanged, just as enthralling and rewarding as it always has been. Combat is just as butter-smooth and fluid as usual, and a couple of different navigational tricks have been thrown in which lend a surge of involvement to scenes which in reality require very little player input. Playing the game still feels as comfortable on the PSP as it does on a controller, although with the new Thera’s Bane ability attributed to the right trigger, you’ll probably find that using magic is slightly more troublesome than it should be.

The thing that always baffles me about these games is how, despite maintaining a very similar formula, they never lose momentum. That trademark pacing is resolutely intact with Ghost of Sparta, and every time I felt it was getting just a little bit tired, I was introduced to a new spell, weapon or interesting boss fight which renewed my enthusiasm every single time. The Arms of Sparta, Kratos’ new spear and shield combination, is one of the more interesting weapons of the series, coming with a complimentary ranged attack and the ability to block and move at the same time; which aside from being useful in combat also has interesting applications in puzzles and environmental traps.

Ghost of Sparta is certainly the most visually impressive game on the system, and while it lacks the phenomenal sense of scale that really defined God of War 3, it’s still extremely nice to look at, packed with gorgeous effects and arresting architecture. I recall that, despite it’s faults, Chains of Olympus was technically very impressive, and this title manages to build on those aesthetic foundations.

Unless you’re truly sick of this series, Ghost of Sparta can’t really fail to impress and entertain. It’s certainly a vast improvement over it’s portable predecessor, offering increased longevity, a return of the epic and monstrous boss battles that are synonymous with the brand, and a generally admirable level of refinement and polish. The slight tonal shift provides a maginally different narrative slant, and it all leads up to a climactic finale which, without wishing to spoil anything, offers a unique twist and a well-suited end to the game.

I have no idea whether or not we’re going to see another God of War game. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but I can safely say that if the series has had it’s day, it went out with it’s head held high.

Scene This?

There was one thing I didn’t touch on in my crucifiction — sorry, review of 007:Blood Stone, and that’s how it breaks pretty much every rule regarding video game cutscenes and how they should be implemented. So, in the interest of raising awareness about this subject, here’s a quick list of some basic rules that cutscenes should follow if they hope to be effective.

Note: I’m not against cutscenes as a whole. I understand that stories require exposition, and that a pre-rendered sequence is the best way to flesh out a story. I’d just like to see them done well for once.

Also note: It isn’t just Blood Stone that does these, so I’ll try and list as many appropriate examples as I can.

1. Let me move during cutscenes: I know, you want to be “cinematic”, but video games aren’t like films. The wonderful thing about games is that they’re interactive. I don’t have to sit there and just watch the events unfold without being able to do anything about them. If I want to move around, let me do that. Let me examine the area, jump up and down or spin around in circles. Bioshock does this exceptionally well by providing logical reasons why you can’t effect what’s happening onscreen. A simple glass partition will do. I know I can’t break it down, but at least I can try.

2. Don’t let my character get captured at gunpoint: This has been happening for the entire game — enemies have pointed guns at me, and they’ve all been left with more orifices than they began the day with. It’s extremely unlikely that James Bond will surrender himself immediately when he’s presented with the the unpleasant end of a gun. He didn’t do that when any of the other 200 bad guys did it. Why is he doing it now?

3. Let me do the cool stuff: Blood Stone is terrible for this. I don’t want to sit still and watch Daniel Craig do all the biggest stunts. When he’s in the middle of a punch up with the baddie of the moment, I want to have control. I might mess it up completely and drive my boat into a bridge or get beaten to death, but at least give me the opportunity. And while we’re on the subject, give the character the same limitations in the cutscenes as he has in the game proper. If I can only make him jump two feet in the air, then don’t have him performing backflips when I’m not in control.

4. Keep the cutscene-gameplay ratio reasonable: Uncharted 2, as good as it is, suffers really badly from this. The time you spend actually playing the game should greatly outweigh the time spent watching the exposition. Uncharted will show a cutscene, have you walk a few feet down a path, then show another one. Tell me everything in the first scene and then let me get on with things. The more you interrupt me, the more I cease to care about what’s going on. Metal Gear Solid 4 is another obvious example, which has single cutscenes that are in equal length to entire blockbuster movies. Hire an editor, and have him be judicious with his editing. Please.

There are probably more, but these seem to be the ones which are the most annoying. If you have any other examples, leave them in the comments. If you know of any games that do cutscenes perfectly, discuss those in the comments too. Just don’t mention Quick-Time Events.

Review: James Bond 007: Blood Stone

I can’t believe how mediocre 007: Blood Stone is. It’s like Bizarre Creations cut off Sam Fisher‘s testicles, then melted down every half-decent feature from every cover-based third person shooter ever made into a bitter, lumpy paste, before forcing gamers worldwide to drink the concoction out of Sam’s hollowed out scrotum. In fact it’s so unremarkable that the very act of playing it created some sort of quantum collapse, erasing it from my memory completely. It’s a good job I made some notes at the time otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a review.

Blood Stone is the first original James Bond video game since Everything or Nothing, with Daniel Craig once again reprising his role as everyone’s favourite secret agent, womaniser and miserable wanker. Joining him this time are M, once again played by Dame Judi Dench; and Nicole Hunter, the latest Bond girl and MI6’s contact in Monaco, voiced by British musician Joss Stone. Unsurprisingly, the plot involves the threat of chemical weapons, though don’t be fooled by the involvement of Bruce Feirstein — this is about as formulaic and shallow as storylines get, culminating in the obligatory double-cross twist which most people will see coming a mile away.

Generally, I can forgive a poor narrative if the gameplay is strong enough to compensate, but unfortunately ‘formulaic’ and ‘shallow’ are perhaps the two best adjectives I can use for not just the plot, but the entire experience. Blood Stone wants to be Splinter Cell: Conviction so badly that it’s frankly quite embarassing. The word ‘clone’ gets tossed around a lot in the games industry, and more often than not I don’t agree with it. For the most part, the core of media development is the expansion of ideas that have previously proved to be successful, albeit with some fine-tuning and the adding/removing of various different aspects. We only need to look at Saints Row 2 for a prime example of how aping a tried and tested formula with enough personality can result in a phenomenally entertaining experience.

Blood Stone, on the other hand, is a thoughtless and unimaginative carbon copy, without any hint of shame. What we have here is a myriad of stolen ideas, dressed up in some vague pretense of originality, yet totally devoid of innovation. Gameplay is the typical linear procession of shooting galleries, and the time spent therein involves little more than emerging from cover to take a couple of shots, before ducking back down and waiting for your health to regenerate. Wash, rinse and repeat for the next five hours.

Bond also has a “takedown” ability which is exactly like the “takedown” ability that Sam Fisher has: pressing a single button when in close proximity to an enemy will initiate a hand-to-hand instant kill, which earns a special type of shot that allows you to lock on to a bad guy’s head from across the room and deliver a single, all-powerful bullet that drops the guy with absolutely no effort from the player. As you may have noticed, this is an awful lot like the Mark & Execute technique from SC:C, although it just feels like more of a gimmick, lacking the strategic implications of the M&E.

Where Blood Stone does differ from Splinter Cell is in the handful of vehicle sections, and to the game’s credit these are reasonably well-done, although coming courtesy of Bizarre they bloody should be. The chase scenes feel chaotic and are visually impressive, but they lack the sense of dynamism that really defines a good pursuit. Such heavy scripting is rather jarring; the first time a bus cut across my path and forced me to drastically alter my route, it was fun. The fourth time in the same scene, not so much, especially when you factor in the slightly unforgiving nature of these segments.

There’s also an online multiplayer component which offers a measly three modes and an already-dwindling community. The usual suspects are all present and correct: team deathmatch, an objective-based mode, and “Last Man Standing”, which is a free-for-all with no respawns. I tried out all three and the whole thing seemed stale and overly sedate. There’s an EXP system which presumably allows you to unlock better weapons, but the gameplay holding it all together won’t hold your attention for long enough to significantly progress.

I really can’t recommend Blood Stone to anyone. Everything here has been done before, and done better, coincidently by the same development team. Bizarre Creations are better than this. If you’re an extremely dedicated James Bond fan and absolutely must play it, then rent it, complete it in an afternoon and forget all about it. It’s not offensive, and to be fair I can’t really say it’s genuinely bad. It’s just bland. Formulaic and shallow, like Bond’s personality.

I’m not sure if that’s ironic or not.

Who’s Laughing Now?

Comedy’s hard to do correctly — just read through this blog for irrefutable proof of that fact. The main reason is that comedy is subjective by nature. What one person finds funny, another may not. There’s no possible way to please everyone, but comedy is comprised of individual elements which, when combined correctly, are more likely to generate laughs than a random gag thrown in out of context.

There’s the intellectual element: understanding the joke. If you don’t get it, you don’t laugh, and you feel like a pillock.

There’s the whole technical element. I mentioned above about context. If a joke about a particular situation is told outside of that situation, it’s shit. If it’s told at the wrong time, it’s shit. If it’s told out of context and out of time, it should carry the death penalty.

Finally, there’s the human element: imagining yourself being part of the joke, and being able to relate to it on that level. The obvious flaw in video game humour is that it’s difficult to relate to someone/something who/that isn’t real.

Michael “The Brainy Gamer” Abbott discussed these elements (using better language, naturally) on his blog when discussing this very subject. By the way, if you’re not familiar with The Brainy Gamer (if you care about games you should be) then I suggest you remedy that situation immediately.

Anyway, the point I’m laboriously trying to make is that if playing through the Monkey Island games taught me one thing, it’s that video game humour isn’t what it used to be. In MI, almost everything is funny. Not just occasional one-liners from the protagonist, not the token idiot NPC or wacky ethnic sidekick, it’s just genuinely laugh-out-loud funny all the way through. This is partly due to the strength of the writing, which ties all of the above elements together beautifully, but it’s also because it’s lighthearted, doesn’t take itself seriously and, most importantly, it’s set in a cartoonish fantasy world. And it has three-headed monkeys.

I know I said a few paragraphs up that it’s hard to relate to something that isn’t real, and that’s true. What’s also true is that it’s a million times harder to relate to something that isn’t real and is trying to pretend that it is.

The in thing right now when it comes to video games is “realism”, and no matter how closely a character resembles a real human being you’re never going to laugh at them because you’re two busy fighting off headaches and nausea.

Lots of games make me chuckle. Sometimes a single line really works, and that’s always a pleasant surprise. There’s one in the Prince of Persia remake about the Concubine enemy being like the Prince’s mum. That tickled me, but it was the only one in about ten thousand that had any effect. All too often these days it comes down to sarcastic player-character observations, which make me want to floss my ear canals with razor wire. When they’re trying too hard, the comedy dies.

If a game wants to be funny, then it needs to make that decision right from the very start. Proper comedy is developed all the way through — it’s fused with every aspect, not just the dialogue. Monkey Island is a shining example of how to do it right. We need more.
A popular current example of comedy in video games is Valve Software’s Portal, a title that is genuinely the comedic benchmark of modern gaming. The Portal formula generated a huge following, and as a result it was plagued by the usual problems: some people (idiots, I believe) thinking that just because something was funny in Portal, it will by default be just as funny everywhere else.

Some game designers believe that making a reference to something that has previously proved to be amusing will automatically make their product just as side-splittingly hilarious, when in actual fact it has the opposite effect. There’s a game on Xbox Live Arcade called ‘Splosion Man, which is set in a laboratory and has the player collecting cakes. As though that isn’t breathtakingly obvious enough, the achievement for collecting all of these cakes is called ‘Not A Portal Reference’. Sorry, Twisted Pixel Games, but you couldn’t have made a more obvious reference if you tried. Pointing to yourself and saying “Hey, look at us! We’re making a Portal reference!” doesn’t detract from the fact that you’re trying to be funny by ripping off something else.

I mentioned briefly earlier in this article about comedic timing and context. The whole cake thing is funny in Portal because it makes sense, but in anything else it doesn’t. If I approached someone who has never played the game, say for example my mum, and said “By the way, mum, the cake is a lie”, she wouldn’t laugh, she’d just look at me like I was a fucking lunatic. I could get on a stage and tell the punchlines to all of the best jokes I’d ever heard, but out of context none of them would be funny at all, and that’s an important aspect of comedy that needs to be remembered.

Also, the cake is a lie.

Review: The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge Special Edition

Look, even if you’d rather boil your own head than play a 90’s-style point-and-click adventure game, The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge Special Edition is still well worth your money. Here’s why: remember in my review of the previous game, I talked about the terrific trio of Dave Grossman, Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer? Well for this version they’ve got together for a director’s commentary-style feature that you can listen to while you play the game. It’s full of hilarious insider knowledge and it’s a great priveledge to hear these three revolutionary designers have a little chit-chat, so get your money out and buy this, alright?

I could leave this review there and just knock off for dinner, but I wouldn’t be the hard-hitting unemployed video game writer that I like to think I am without talking about the actual game aspect of the, well, game. So, without further ado, here are some more reasons to buy TSOMI2:LCRSE, which will hereby be referred to as Monkey Island 2.

Primarily, it’s still just as funny and inventive as the first game, and if you don’t mind having your brain tickled and then gently massaged in creative comedy then there’s really nothing to dislike, at least if you play with the original controls. Speaking of which, the option is still there to revert back to the graphics and sound of the original game, with the added bonus of being able to listen to the (again, pretty good) voice acting while in the old view.

So far, so good. All in all, the package feels a lot fuller, which is nice. There’s unlockable concept art which gives you an insight into various stages of the development process, a revision to the hint system which highlights objects you should be interacting with, and you can now move Guybrush around with the analogue stick. Oh, wait, I think I see the problems coming over the horizon.

Analogue control in a game like this just doesn’t feel natural, and while Mr Threepwood is a dab hand at insult swordfighting, womanising and battling ghost pirates, he hasn’t quite got to grips with walking around. He often gets stuck behind objects or walks in a slightly different direction than the one intended, and that’s a fairly serious issue here. At the end of the day, no method of control will ever be as precise as pointing and clicking, and the attempts to modernise the game in this regard don’t work too well. Thankfully, though, you’re only one button press away from how the game should be played, so it’s fine.

Perhaps it isn’t my place to say that any game should be played in a specific way. Hey, if you want to play using the new control system, that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but personally, I can’t see how anyone would prefer not having the accessibility of the original format. Although in reflection possibly because it looks like someone’s drawn rough notes all over half of the screen.

Chances are you already know whether or not you like this game. If you played it when it was first released and you’re looking for a reason to fork out more cash for it, the director’s commentary is probably the major reason to do so. Again, the core design is fundamentally the same, but it’s still as witty and charming as ever, plus you get the added bonus of hearing Tim Schafer’s tender voice lovingly caressing your ear drums like warm honey and — whoops, got carried away again.

Review: The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition

I’m always shamefully quick to admit that I missed out on the reign of LucasArts and the adventure genre. Apparently this was a time of well-made, intelligent and humorous endeavors like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and of course The Secret of Monkey Island, before the company totally abandoned ingenuity and originality in favour of milking every last drop of profit from the Star Wars franchise.

Fortunately, with the recent high-definition remastering of TSOMI and the wonders of Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Store, myself and many people like me now have the opportunity to experience these by-gone days of gaming without having to load up DOSBox.

So how does a twenty year-old game hold up today? Well that depends on who you are, and what you’re looking for in a £10 product. The only “special” parts of this Special Edition are the aforementioned glossy HD makeover and some above-average voice acting, neither of which are particularly deal breakers. What’s important here is the gameplay, and that’s still the traditional point-and-click adventure most people played in 1990, nothing gained, nothing lost. My worry is simple: will the vast majority of modern gamers consider that to be enough?

For those not in the know, The Secret of Monkey Island tells the tale of Guybrush Threepwood, a curiously soft-spoken and polite young man who yearns above all things to be a pirate. Players guide him around the world by clicking where they want him to go, who they want him to talk to and how they want him to use various random items in increasingly illogical ways. It’s true that they don’t make ’em like this anymore, but the problem with that is people are no longer familiar with weird adventure game logic. Puzzles should be difficult, but there’s a very fine line between reasonable experimentation and simple trial-and-error.

Puzzles in Monkey Island are of the “use item x with item y” variety, but the vast majority of the solutions are esoteric. Upon close inspection they do make sense, but more often than not it would make considerably more sense to use one of the four or five other, more appropriate items that you’re carrying around. Of course this comes with the territory, but it takes some getting used to if you’re not already accustomed to it, and it’s easy to imagine less patient players getting bored and giving up. Truth be told there is a hint system in this edition, but for people who like this kind of thing using it would pretty much be considered sacrilege.

Regardless of it’s age, TSOMI is phenomenally well-written, and it’s always worth taking the time out to decipher the puzzles just to see what wonderfully charming and hilarious thing the characters will do or say next. Credit goes to the all-star tag team of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who later went on to lead the development of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge.

I’ve got to recommend TSOMI, whether you have played an adventure game or not. No, you may not be utterly taken with how it all works, but I challenge anyone not to appreciate the originality, intelligence, humour and charm here. If you’re new to the adventure genre, like I was, this is the perfect starting point. If you loved the game in 1990, you’ll love it now. It’s a little bit like slipping on an old pair of slippers; they’re just as warm, comfortable and welcoming as ever, just remember that someone’s drawn all over them with a felt-tip pen.