Monday, 26 September 2011

Homefront - mass graves, evil Koreans

Homefront, the FPS THQ released earlier this year amidst an aggressive marketing campaign, saw a unified Korean army invade the United States. It did good things: I liked the consistency of the domestic suburban U.S setting, there were some impressively spectacular set-pieces and, er, it was reasonably fun in places. It also did bad things, not least in going to great lengths to create a serious political framework for its implausible story before spoiling it all by casting the Koreans as monstrous one-dimensional ogres. In case your motivation for killing these insane subhumans was unclear, throughout Homefront you had to defend a family from being ambushed (complete with crying baby!) and return to what was once a peaceful communal garden to find everyone slaughtered. Who's going to grow the vegetables now?! It's so sad. But best of all though was the moment at the end of chapter two when you stumble upon a mass grave of American innocents, and can only watch on helplessly as those evil Koreans shovel in more dead. There're so many they have to use a mechanical truck to get them all! The level ends with perhaps the greatest button prompt in first-person shooter history, when unable to run from an imminent enemy helicopter, the on-screen instruction 'Square - Jump In Mass Grave' appears.

Homefront is basically the videogaming equivalent of those American hard-bodied films from the 1980s - they masqueraded as action cinema but were pieces of Republican/Reagenite propaganda from the 1980s, the likes of Red Dawn (whose director John Milius also wrote Homefront) and Delta Force helping promote American might and coming across a tad fascistic. But anyway, here's the footage of Homefront's mass grave mission*.

Jump In Mass Grave, amazing.

* Taken from the PC version.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Star Fox 64 3D

The breathtaking interpretations of Nintendo’s core franchises during the N64 era saw Miyamoto and co arguably at the peak of their powers – subsequent hardware has seen the company’s marquee names occasionally suffer from confusing mis-directions and an increasing emphasis on nostalgia over progression, as highlighted by the introduction of the Virtual Console or in the (deliberately?) predictable design of, for example, Twilight Princess. But back then – and excuse our rose-tinted specs – everything Nintendo touched turned to gold.

Nintendo’s richly evocative history of games is unrivalled in the industry, but there’s a growing suspicion, one underlined by the 3DS’s troubled launch, that their approach is one increasingly reliant on re-packaging, whereas once it was synonymous with freshness. It’s somewhat poignant then that Nintendo are reaching back to the late-90s, that wide-eyed period of creativity, for these early 3DS titles.

Star Fox 64 3D is almost the perfect case in point. Its original 1998 release built on the excellent SNES original in every way, with Nintendo fashioning a witty, spectacular space opera that tipped its hat cutely in the direction of both George Lucas and Gerry Anderson. This Nintendo 3DS version is more of a re-mastering than a simple re-release; visuals and audio have been polished up to sparkling levels and the implementation of the 3D effect is uniquely well suited to the game’s airborne space combat, but were Star Fox just one title in an array of genuinely new 3DS games then it would be easier to quit the critical hand-wringing. As it stands it’s a fabulous game that, for Nintendo fans at least, is surrounded by deeper questions.

But then, upon turning the game on for the first time and seeing the Star Wars-like scrolling text again, a gravelly voiceover telling of galactic troubles, is to be reminded that, despite all the cynicism of the previous paragraphs, this is still one of the best videogames I ever played and that, if anything, it’s glistening appearance on 3DS is the chance for gamers too young to remember the big-boxed, Rumble Pak-enhanced original, to see what the fuss is all about.

Star Fox’s levels are already the perfect size for handheld gaming, something emphasised by the Score Attack mode, which allows you to select from any of the levels already completed. With its relative brevity and focus on replayability Starfox 64, despite the cartoony plot and dialogue, betrays the pure arcade shooter beating at its heart. To play Star Fox 64 through once is to merely scratch at its universe. As anyone who spent hours with the original game will recall, fulfilling certain conditions on a level opens up different branches, en route to the final battle on Venom. My copy of Lylat Wars – to give the N64 version its unfortunate European title – eventually saw each level bestowed with a prestigious gold medal, a pursuit driven by the compulsion to eek out everything that the game had to offer. Star Fox 64 3D engenders the same love.

The main game is split into both 3DS and N64 modes. The latter maintains the difficulty of the original game, as well as preventing the use of any motion controls. It’s definitely the best way to play Star Fox 64 3D. The gyro controls work well, but there’s something inherently distracting about tipping the console around to help manoeuvre your fighter, although this is admittedly balanced out by the more forgiving difficulty of 3DS mode. It’s also hard to use gyro controls in conjunction with the 3D effect being turned on, as the screen has to constantly move from its optimum viewing position.

In addition to the single-player mode there is also a fun multiplayer mode, albeit one that is only playable against local opponents (however only one copy of the game between four players is needed). The split-screen multiplayer mode in the N64 game seemed extraneous when first unveiled but was actually quite a treat once played, and the 3DS version is designed in much the same rambunctious spirit.

There can be no doubting he pleasure in revisiting the wonders of gaming past, and Star Fox 64 3D still stands today as a beacon of impeccable design, but at this present moment the 3DS’s balance seems too heavily skewed towards looking back, retromania over reinvention. On the other hand, this is a superb package, and a robust reminder of just what the 3DS is capable of. Star Fox 64 3D, then: it’s the console’s second-best game, just behind Ocarina Of Time 3D.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.