Sunday, 30 January 2011

10 Games For 2011, part 2

Killzone 3

Whether intentionally ironic or not, the February over of EDGE magazine doesn't paint an encouraging picture of the first-person shooter's current health, where bland cyber-soldier (Crysis 2) meets faceless robot (Bodycount) meets wise-cracking everyman (Bulletstorm); the personal feeling of fatigue and boredom is overwhelming despite the notion that each of these games - as well as the likes of Brink, Rage and Portal 2 - will each bring genre-pushing innovations, both technical and mechanical, to market.

Portal 2 we've already discussed in part one of our guide to the forthcoming year, and is the only first-person title (to call it a 'shooter' would be a massive disservice) that we're genuinely excited about. Killzone 3 is perhaps the most fascinating of the rest of this brawn-and-spectacle crop, and by releasing first has the potential to set an early benchmark for 2011.

With Killzone 2 Guerrilla Games showed a flair for set-piece and pacing, as well as a weakness for overly-portentous storytelling. This sequel promises a greater range of environments, adds split-screen co-op, bulks up the multiplayer side of things and - best of all - implements Move support. Worryingly this second sequel is reported to have reduced the sensation of weight that has been one of the series' trademarks thus far, but we'll know for sure once the game is released in just under a month's time. 2011 could be the biggest year yet for FPS; here's hoping for some genuine surprises to shake us from our jaded stupor.


thatgamecompany, already responsible for two of Playstation Network's most affecting and unique titles in Flow and 2009's Flower, are looking to complete a mini trilogy of interactive metaphysics with Journey. Whereas Flow essayed the sea, and Flower the clash between nature and the urban, Journey - if the brooding trailer below is indicative - will take place in vast, often empty, deserts. It's Journey's take on online interaction though that has us most excited. Although an online game in approach, Journey strips away any comparisons to the team-based ethics of an MMO, or the social japery of a hub such as Home, by removing any identifers, such as usernames, from any other player met, as well as preventing communication via voice chat or text. This focus on the fundamental truths of online interaction should make for one of 2011's most unforgettable experiences. Indeed, for a game so invested in the stripping of personality, Journey already has an individuality bolder than many titles on this list.

Batman: Arkham City

Before the release of Arkham Asylum you had to go all the way back to 1993's side-scrolling fighter Batman Returns for the last half-decent videogame starring the Caped Crusader (please feel free to contradict me in the comments section below). But Arkham Asylum was of course better than 'half-decent'; dripping with the Batman mythos, confident in switching between stealth and combat gameplay, and with a knack of disorientating the player that would please Hideo Kojima, Arkham Asylum was 2009's surprise package.

Arkham City won't have quite the same advantage of slipping out unheralded, but the extra focus shouldn't faze Rocksteady from their work. The presence of Catwoman will be a neat link to 2012's third Christopher Nolan film, whilst the trailers and artwork released thus far for Arkham City indicate a game likely to be even darker in tone.

L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire's release date (now confirmed for Europe as 20th May) would strongly suggest that publisher Rockstar Games has the belief that their latest intervention in the evolution of open world-style gaming will be as striking - and successful - as Red Dead Redemption, which was released on almost exactly the same date last year. Highly tenuous release date pondering aside, Team Bondi's debut certainly has an ambitious list of features: over 20 hours of voice acting (including Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove, actor Aaron Staton, in the lead role), a "perfectly recreated" 1947 Los Angeles, and the use of impressive new facial capture technology.

But beyond the headline-grabbing bullet-points, it's the intelligent understanding of film noir's aesthetics and themes, as evidenced in the latest trailer, coupled with an emphasis on procedure, careful sleuthing and interrogation upon which L.A. Noire's achievements will depend. For potential advancements in videogame storytelling, it's this year's Heavy Rain.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Sequel to one of the greatest videogames ever. Inspired by Lawrence of Arabia as much as Indiana Jones. Little more needs to be said. Released November 4th, 2011.

Honourable mentions: Shadows of the Damned, Gears of War 3, Pokemon Black & White, MotorStorm: Apocalypse, the Nintendo 3DS, Sony's NGP and Duke Nukem Forever(!).

Thursday, 13 January 2011

10 Games For 2011, part 1

Child Of Eden

My gaming moment of 2010 didn’t come from any of the shiny new software released in the last twelve months, but instead from the experience of playing 2001’s Rez in a location that provided the opportunity for a significant recontextualization of this shooter classic: Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. Part of the venerable art institution’s monthly late events, their night celebrating the many facets of gaming had much to recommend, but this opportunity to play Rez in such a unique setting was arguably the highlight. The gameplay was simultaneously projected onto the wall behind where I sat (thereby instantly bringing up every tedious ‘games-are-art’ debate), but it was the combination of a large HD screen, ear-enveloping loud soundtrack, and an active audience of spectators, that provided the unique rush of adrenaline that, say, playing the game on your own at home just can’t quite compete with. A complete sensory overload then, and one that brought home just what an achievement Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s masterwork remains – a combination of shooting mechanics, music, visuals and concept that was always a uniquely physical experience, even without using the, er, Trance Vibrator.

Child Of Eden then is something of the next step in this creative evolution – a spiritual sequel to Rez that, thanks to the (optional) use of Kinect, could make the aforementioned presence of an audience something to actually aim for. A shooter where the performance – literally physical, when using Kinect - is as important as the on-screen progress. It’s understandably very similar to Rez; there are 5 levels, the story focuses on the threat of an encroaching virus and the Mizuguchi trademark of employing the principles of syanthesia is engrained in the game’s DNA – but Child Of Eden is said to differ to its forbear in a number of striking ways. We’ve read reports of a more dynamic combat system, a purposeful emphasis on the emotional impact on the player, and a visual approach to environment that is more organic than the angularity of Rez. All this is exciting stuff. The fact that it looks astonishing, as the trailer below demonstrates, doesn’t harm Child Of Eden’s chances.

In an interview following E3, Tetsuya Mizuguchi said: “Rez is Rez and Child Of Eden is Child Of Eden. In my mind, after Rez, I spent ten years with the same thought in my head all the time. I think for every game designer it’s the same: what is next? I had many things about Rez that I wasn’t 100 per cent satisfied with, so the question becomes: if I had the chance to make the next game – the next game in this spirit – what kind of game would I make?” We’re hoping that Child Of Eden is the answer. And yes, it might just be the reason to buy Kinect.

The Last Guardian

A game which made an appearance in last year’s Moon Witch Cartridge preview, more out of hope than expectation, The Last Guardian should be released during 2011. Regardless, Fumito Ueda’s profile will be higher than ever in the next twelve months, thanks in part to the much-anticipated HD re-releases of both Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. 2010’s God Of War Collection showed how such considerate remastering can preserve classic game design, and Team Ico’s iconic Playstation 2 duo are exactly the sort of titles that could do with discovery by the current generation, being titles that are talked about in hushed tones more than actually being played first-hand. It’s the latter game’s interaction between the horse Agro and Wander that apparently formed the foundation for The Last Guardian. Such emphasis on forming a close relationship with the creature Trico can only end one way in a Ueda game (hint, it probably won’t be happy), but to copy what I wrote last year - File under: potential best game of 2011.

Kirby's Epic Yarn

The first console-based Kirby platform game since Nintendo 64’s The Crystal Shards eleven years ago, Epic Yarn completes a loose trilogy of revivalist 2D Nintendo Wii platformers. Sitting neatly alongside New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn may lack the retro self-awareness of the former, and the hardcore old-school challenge of the latter, but in their place is a remarkable patchwork aesthetic, similar to LittleBigPlanet, that had me transfixed when I first laid eyes on the game at a Nintendo showcase last year (the same place where I first got my hands on the 3DS). Levels fold over, made as they are out of fabric, their stitching unwinds beautifully, with all reports pointing to an exercise in platforming where the emphasis is on exploration, collection and extreme cuteness. The first essential Wii game of 2011. And definitely not just for the kids.

The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

2011 promises to be quite a year for all things Link. Firstly, there’s the small matter of Skyward Sword, the first full-blown Zelda adventure developed specifically for Wii. I also intend to get a Triforce tattoo at some point in the next three months. Of the former, we are of course very excited at the prospect of MotionPlus-enhanced control and combat, though this excitement is tempered by 2006’s disappointingly formulaic Twilight Princess. Of the latter, expect photos (and probably a bit of pain). Despite these two momentous occasions (albeit one probably more keenly awaited by the gaming world than the other), it’s the 3DS re-release of Ocarina Of Time that may just be the key Zelda-specific event of 2011, and one of the calendar highlights for all console gamers of a certain age.

Although A Link To The Past was the first Zelda game I ever played, its stormy opening forever etched into my mind, it was the two straight weeks I spent with Ocarina Of Time, during the Christmas of 1998, that remains one of my cherished cultural experiences. I’ve discussed Ocarina Of Time before on Moon Witch Cartridge (specifically two striking reinterpretations of its soundtrack), but despite my love for the game, I’ve only ever played through the game once; although nearly every facet of Link’s first 3D outing has stayed with me since, the re-release of Ocarina Of Time is excellent news, if only because it offers a welcome excuse for another, long overdue, excursion into 1998-circa Hyrule. Frankly the prospect of 3D visuals is something of a bonus, given that this is the first real opportunity to give a true classic the celebration it deserves.

Nostalgia shouldn’t always be encouraged (although it is becoming, for various reasons, an ever more increasing trend within gaming), but Ocarina Of Time’s thirteen-year(!) design blueprint will still outshine the large majority of 2011’s new titles. It’s the main reason that many – this writer included - will buy a 3DS in the first place. Hopefully I’ll have my own Triforce ready in time.

Portal 2

Very rarely do games have the confidence and wit to comment on the very medium of gaming, and its preoccupations with reward and active player involvement. Portal, however, was one such game. Not only was it fascinating on a dry theoretical level, the original Portal was also one of the most emotionally complex games I've ever played. And that's without mentioning its wondrous marriage of first-person gameplay and fiendish spatial puzzles, allied to a near-perfect difficulty curve which people cleverer than me have identified as an excellent example of something called instructional scaffolding. Valve have certainly set the bar high; come April 22nd we'll know how successful they've been in building on such an illustrious foundation. And here, inevitably, is a video of the Portal credits song Still Alive. Still amazing.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

2010 began with much promise for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, several glowing previews praising IO Interactive’s sequel chiefly for its utilisation of a YouTube-inspired visual makeover (instead of merely loading, each gap between levels is for buffering – clever!). These articles took the ever-dependable journalistic tack, that of a follow-up learning from the mistakes of its predecessors (namely that Dead Men was a broken mess, a half-formed game with two interesting characters). So far, so good. However within two weeks of release Dog Days had already been slashed in price, the recipient of some embarrassing review scores (here’s Destructoid, already referenced in our Deadly Premonition review, with their pretty damning, reasonably argued, 1 out of 10 verdict), all amid numerous internet smirks about bribe money having changed hands in return for some of the, er, more generous assessments (9 out of 10 from Official Xbox Magazine? Really?).

I should of course point out here that these were jibes based on the sacking of GameSpot editor Jeff Gerstmann following his 6/10 verdict for the original Kane & Lynch game, with the GameSpot website hosting a strong advertising presence for Dead Men at the time. GameSpot have always denied that there was a link between the sacking of Gerstmann and his review, with the subsequent alteration of his review text justified thusly: “The copy was adjusted several days after its publication so that it better meshed with its score, which remained unchanged”. In this case, why not just alter the score? You can read GameSpot’s public statement on the issue here. Anyway, digression over.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is set in Shanghai, which coincidentally is also the location that 2010’s other notable morally-contentious third-person game, Army Of Two: The 40th Day is set (one can only assume that the local government was offering attractive tax-rates to rouge double-act mercenaries at the time). The similarities don’t extend that much further though. I looked at The 40th Day in more detail early last year and was pleasantly surprised at the rather more conciliatory approach taken by EA Montreal, in comparison to the ideologically troubling original Army Of Two. Dog Days lacks even this interesting political subtext, and concerns the efforts of the titular duo to secure the safe completion of a smuggling deal that will, in the words of Wikipedia, “help them retire”. Things inevitably go awry when Lynch, having just met Kane for the first time in a while, decides to confront an informant. The informant and his girlfriend die, the subsequent fallout gets pretty messy, and takes both unlikeable characters between various gangs, ambushes, and to one peculiar mission in which you traverse the back-alleys and shopping centres of the city naked, looking for an outfit.

The conceit of the hand-held camera, which underpins the entire game’s push for realism, is implemented well. It bobs convincingly behind your character, the grainy visuals and piercing rays of light evocative of Michael Mann’s films (the ending, for example, is straight from Heat) or a particularly nasty edition of You’ve Been Framed. Although the motion effect can be switched off, I personally didn’t find it too distracting; questions of who is filming the action, and just why, are irrelevant. This is after all a game in which Lynch, at one point, melts a soldier’s face on a hob, while the faces of innocents killed are pixelated. The suspension of disbelief required is as important here as it was in, say, Cloverfield, another recent work built around the concept of a dominant subjective narrator. Despite this surface similarity, there are of course several flaws with this comparison.

The player’s perspective in Dog Days is of course no different to that employed in countless other third-person action titles (the clue is in the third-person tag), whereas film shot from a first-person perspective is still a rare device – when cinema employs such a tactic it’s usually with a careful consideration of purpose (Cloverfield referenced the recent explosion in user generated content on a number of occasions, as well as providing one of the more visceral approaches to the monster movie genre). The hand-held camera in Dog Days, meanwhile, signifies nothing beyond a different way in which the same tired cover-shoot gameplay can be wrapped; it certainly isn’t enough to sustain interest, despite a short solo campaign.

Reaching for greater realism is laudable, but the game falls drastically short of such heights for a number of key reasons. For instance, it might just be the most linear game I’ve played in recent years, with no deviation granted from a set path, no moments of spectacle to liven the tedium – the pattern of corridor, cover, shoot, room, cover etc reaches a certain rhythm after a while, but only because you learn not to be surprised. The one turret mission, which takes place on a helicopter, stands out in this respect, but is as forgettable as the rest of the game. When coupled with the fact that there are no sub-objectives, a score system or even collectables, you start to think that the developers put all their ideas and effort into the visual makeover and were left with zero inspiration for the rest of the game. Tonally it’s also all over the place. In the Blood, Sweat & Tears mission we’re asked to sympathise with the plight of sweatshop workers, but this is immediately after you’ve just wiped out an entire car park full of police. There’s a fundamental clash of aesthetics and in-game action, and the two never really align; take away the radical visual effect and you’re left with one of the most regressively bland shooting galleries of this generation. There have been worse videogames, but few leave you with as bad a taste in the mouth as Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days.

- Jeff Gerstmann reviewed Dog Days for Giant Bomb, which you can read here.

- This is the naked mission, A Thousand Cuts, in all its, er, glory: