Sunday, 21 February 2010

Army Of Two: The 40th Day

“Yes, you can kill Chinese and destroy their beautiful city in the game, but hopefully they’ll understand it’s entertainment.”

A few words on Army Of Two: The 40th Day.

I reviewed the first game for D+PAD Magazine back in early 2008, and found its “morally dubious” politics – here I am, quoting myself - more noteworthy than the actual gameplay. I wasn’t alone in this of course; for example EDGE’s review began by recalling the ironically patriotic refrain from Team America: “America – fuck yeah!”. While games have always tackled real-world conflicts, and will continue to do so - the forthcoming Medal Of Honor is set in present-day Afghanistan – their position when doing so has always tended to be closer to that of being either apolitical or merely representational; we may be aware of the contexts of most conflicts but our primary motivation when playing, say, Call Of Duty 2 isn’t so much killing the Nazis because they’re Nazis, but because doing so is our only means of progression in the level, the game, and finally completion. In short ideology doesn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – get a look in.

This is where Army Of Two was troubling, because at times it felt not so much like a war game set in various arenas of conflict – and, er, Miami – but more like a particularly American catharsis, an interactive embodiment of Bush’s foreign policy in which every ‘uncivilized’ Middle Eastern/African country – and, er, China - could be brought around to the ‘right’ way of doing things. And this would all be accomplished by two private military contractors; Dick Cheney couldn’t write a better script. It was the now infamous cut-scene which saw you waking up to breaking news about the Twin Towers that really jarred; if the intention of the developers was to incite feelings of hurt and a subsequent desire for revenge then, for me at least, it was a badly misjudged, somewhat cheap appropriation of 9/11 without the intelligence to either a) acknowledge the medium’s focus on activity over passivity (and the implications of this), or b) at least make the player question their actions. It was this absence of wit and perspective that really stained what was otherwise an unspectacular if relatively solid third-person action game.

Which brings us to Army Of Two: The 40th Day. If the first game was very much a product of the delirious, troubling reign of Dubya – and it was – then there’s a case, without going too overboard, to say that The 40th Day is the first title to reflect the Obama era: more self-aware, acknowledging of past mistakes and slightly humble but without losing the image of military power.

You don’t even need to play the game to realise that a slight shift has occurred. In an interview prior to the sequel’s release, EA Montreal’s general manager Alain Tascan – who is also responsible for the rather tongue-in-cheek comment at the beginning of this article – admitted: “People who were sensitive to politics were like, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I understand them…people on the right thought we were on the left, and people on the left thought that we were on the right”. Despite this there is, in The 40th Day, still the tangible spectre of 9/11 in the constant scenes of buildings collapsing and planes crashing (in fact it’s so frequent that it almost turns into a parody of Emmerich-esque disaster porn), whilst others more fanciful than myself would suggest that the idea of Shanghai’s financial district collapsing is almost as much of a right-wing American fantasy as the ability to take digital revenge against Al-Qaeda.

Technically The 40th Day also seems to have built on the same engine as its predecessor. It’s not especially pretty and there were many glitches and instances of the game freezing which suggest there wasn’t much time to add polish before launch. That said, as in the original, it’s at its strongest when expansive environments and the method of marshalling your partner – or even better, working with another real player - coalesce into sustained gunfights of great momentum and realistic tension, where teamwork and patience are paramount. In this respect the game gets better as it goes on.

So, now Rios and Salem have a conscience (they frequently comment on how much they hate their work, which is a marked contrast to the first game’s frat-boy styling), there are moral choices to be made in each chapter that always have consequences (which again prioritises careful consideration over gung-ho impulsiveness in the decision-making process), and – most intriguingly of all – whereas the first game’s conclusion left you in doubt that here was the start of EA’s latest franchise, The 40th Day, without giving too much away, is significantly more ambiguous in its denouement. After the welcome about-turn evidenced here it will be interesting to see just how EA approach the aforementioned Medal Of Honor reboot, given that it takes place in a war that is still very much on-going, albeit one in its end stages if Obama is to be believed. For the debate that surrounds videogames and their approach to the politics of war, it’s definitely not a case of “mission accomplished”.

You can read the original 2008 Army Of Two review by downloading the particular issue of D+PAD Magazine here.

As a side note, in chapter 3 you can take cover behind a DEAD HIPPO, which is almost brilliant enough to forgive all the other FOX News-friendly stuff elsewhere.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Dante's Inferno

Developer: Visceral Games
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 5.3

Dante’s Inferno may be only the second new-IP current-generation title from Visceral Games, but already the developer seems to have established a trademark of turning out highly derivative genre pieces whose overall slickness - and innate understanding of what makes particular genres work - ultimately overrides the more negative issues, the biggest one being a lack of originality. In all fairness Dead Space was a more individual work than its reputation may suggest; in amongst the overt nods to sci-fi cinema and survival horror classics were little touches – the forensic dismembering of limbs, the absence of sound as you step into space for the first time – that helped lift the experience into one of the most tense, tightly controlled and plain scary games since Resident Evil 4. It’s a little harder to be so generous with Dante’s Inferno.

EA’s appropriation of the 14-century poem may have initially raised a few eyebrows when first announced but with the benefit of hindsight and many hours spent slashing at flaming babies it makes perfect sense: er, of course Visceral aren’t brazenly resting on the laurels of God Of War! They’re merely following in the footsteps of Sony’s behemoth by also basing their epic adventure on ancient mythology! David Jaffe had the Greek Legends, so Visceral have the Divine Comedy. It’s a dishonest justification – as much as I wanted to try and avoid bringing up Kratos and co it’s difficult to ignore the comparison when both the base material and game mechanics of Dante’s Inferno are so similar, stubbornly rooted as it is in the world of ancient bloodletting, gothic fantasy and, as another reviewer so memorably put it, a place where “tits abound”.

Dante’s Inferno sticks surprisingly close to the overall structure of the poem – not that I would know, but thanks Wikipedia – and wraps up the incessant hacking as a descent into the unpleasant depths of Hell. In the poem Hell is depicted as being composed of nine circles of suffering - Limbo, Lust and so on until the final circle, Treason. It’s probably the only symbolism inherent in Dante’s work that translates well to the game, offering as it does a neat device for nine clearly demarcated worlds, each with their own architecture and enemies (the sickly human folds of Gluttony are a particular standout). It would of course be a gross misunderstanding to accuse Visceral of failing to respect the subtext of the work – anyone looking for any great depth or understanding of the human condition in a game where you have to fight a boss who produces babies with knives from the nipple of her screen-filling breast will likely come away disappointed.

It’s also unlikely that you’ll be thinking of 14th century literature while actually playing Dante’s Inferno. In small doses, or when looking at each individual circle in isolation, it’s an immensely gratifying, undeniably exciting game: demon hordes are dispatched in brutal fashion, it moves at a tremendously fast pace, and only a few puzzles have the audacity to appear and break up the momentum – when these pauses in the action do occur they’re little more than of the cursory block-pushing/switch-pulling variety. But ultimately, though there’s little wrong with Visceral’s technical work here, not enough thought appears to have gone into how the player might feel after six or seven hours of the same repetitive gameplay and set-pieces. Last month’s Darksiders, which also shared a similar (over)affection for God Of War, suffered from the same problem of initial enjoyment sliding into thumping familiarity (its last third especially was particularly grinding), but at least its developers had the good sense to throw in a few testing puzzles and a combat system that at least afforded the player some choice. By comparison Dante’s Inferno sees the player use only their scythe throughout the game, with variety coming in the shape of extra combos and magic attacks as opposed to different weapons, which would at least have had more of a tangible effect on gameplay and the approach to combat. There is a side-arm, Beatrice’s Holy Cross, which allows you to fire projectiles, but Dante’s Inferno is mostly a case of hammering X, with the odd dodge, block or magic attack thrown in for good measure. Yes they are the building blocks of nearly every third-person action game, but it’s amazing how reductive Visceral have made this system feel.

The system of acquiring extra skills is at least handled with a degree of ingenuity. Dante is able to grab most enemies and then, as a finishing move, decide whether to punish or absolve them for their sins – the latter grants Dante unholy souls (note to heathens: this is what will happen to you without salvation), while the latter is considered a holy act and awards Dante the equivalent holy souls. Both unholy and holy have their own individual experience levels and subsequent sets of upgrades, so the more souls you accumulate for each particular side, the more options open up. It’s a clever system in principle, sharing much in common with similar models used in the likes of BioShock and Fallout 3, but leaning towards being either merciful or mean doesn’t seem to particularly affect Dante in any discernible way. Not only this but we found that the upgrades available on both the holy and unholy sides were largely similar, leaving no real motivation to opt for one decision or another.

Dante’s original text is only shoehorned in as a loading screen when you die. Otherwise the narrative is told through a mixture of excellent 2D animation for the flashbacks and, for the current events, boring CG cut-scenes. If Inferno is an allegory of the soul’s journey towards God – again, thanks Wikipedia – then Visceral’s take on the epic poem is, more simply, about a guy trying to get his girl back. As in most videogame stories reaching a conclusion to this tale isn’t the overriding motivation to play. Instead it’s the impressively successful feeling of burrowing ever deeper into these nightmarish depths.

So while it’s hard to fault the efficiency of Visceral’s final product - all carping aside, the controversial license has at least been handled with a certain care given that this is a videogame and not an academic study – Dante’s Inferno is too familiar, too regressive and too content to do the necessary minimum to recommend wholeheartedly. I’ll leave it to Ralph Pite, an expert in Dante studies, for the brilliantly succinct – and accurate - final word: “The lower he descends, the more haunting and powerful the graphics become, but it’s a much duller story than the book. Kill one monster, kill another.”
Next week on D+PAD: Criterion and their conversion of Hamlet.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

A few days after finishing Dante's Inferno I finally got around to playing Bayonetta. Though the comparison between the two games may seem a little tenuous to some (for example there's a clear clash between Eastern and Western sensibilities, and Bayonetta isn't based on one of literature's key texts; in fact Bayonetta doesn't take itself too seriously AT ALL), both titles are firmly entrenched in familiar genre mechanics. Dante's Inferno has been criticised - by myself, and by nearly every other review of the game that I've read - as being one of the more obvious imitations of another game there has been for many years (that'll be God Of War then), while Bayonetta, from the director of the original Devil May Cry, shares a fluid fighting system with that illustrious series (whose key character is also confusingly called Dante). Both Dante's Inferno and Bayonetta are third-person combat games, and both are perfectly playable. But Bayonetta is also something a whole lot more: its wit, balance, sheer number of ideas, pacing, visuals and fighting system of incredible depth is a staggering package; Kamiya has taken the hack and slash, and its emphasis on style, to a boundary that not many people knew existed. Whatever his intentions, whether he created Bayonetta out of frustration with the paucity of imagination in evidence elsewhere in the genre (something Devil May Cry 4 would be guilty of), or whether he simply wanted to make his own love letter to videogaming (because Bayonetta is also that), he has made a game that proves you can use the constraints of a genre creatively and not, as in Dante's Inferno, use them as an excuse to indulge in stifling conservatism.