THE ROAD TO TAHITI: LOOKING BACK AT DUTCH VAN DER LINDE


THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR READ DEAD REDEMPTION AND RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2.


 

Hero, villain and tragic figure of Rockstar’s world-renowned western franchise, Dutch Van Der Linde arguably has just as much right to the claim of “main character” of the Red Dead series than John Marston, Arthur Morgan, or that other one from the first game that nobody remembers.

But the funny thing about Dutch is just how much talk he inspires from the series’ fans. Established protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston aren’t two-dimensional by any means, but their needs and desires are largely quite simple – protect people they like, acknowledge that the world is moving on, maybe try to ease up on quite so much senseless killing; a chore list we can all get behind.

Dutch, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down, especially when looking at what he actually wants and what might be driving him underneath everything else. We’ve seen him go from a caring, heroic father figure to an unrepentant, self-satisfied murderer, compromising nearly every ideal he claimed to care about from the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2.

It doesn’t even help when you look it what he says, because his general life philosophy seems a little vague. For somebody who never shuts up about freedom, liberty, the hypocrisies of civilisation and the beauty of the “savage utopia”, pulling anything concrete from what he says is a lot harder than you’d think, and that’s definitely by design. Rockstar clearly put a lot of hundred-hour weeks into making Dutch as charismatic as possible, but as time progresses we get the sense that a lot of what he’s talking about might just be hot air, a load of high-minded rhetoric that’s lacking in any real substance.

Maybe this is why he’s also a character defined by contradictions and double-standards. He’s openly cynical about Saint Denis, yet fits in perfectly at one of their illustrious high-society parties, laughing with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. He’s filled with contempt for civilisation and the lies it tells, yet wears slick, stylish clothes, constantly cons people, carries personalised weapons and practices inspirational speeches when he thinks nobody is looking. And, of course, he kills strangers one moment, yet shows unbridled compassion the next.

So what is at the core of Dutch’s character? Anarchic, uncaring evil? A romantic spirit warped by a world it doesn’t fit into? A poet, a warrior, a leader? No, of course not. These aren’t actual personality traits, these are images Dutch projects to cover up or even hold up the real core of his being: Ego. Sure, anybody who plays either game for more than ten minutes can tell you that Dutch’s sense of self-worth could rival Kim Jong-Un’s, but I suspect it goes deeper than just another character flaw, the root cause of his ideals, his motivations and eventually his downfall.

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A man with weapons, a god-complex, a disinterest in law, utterly devoted followers and a major chip on his shoulder. What could go wrong?

Let’s take a step back. We know that Dutch Van Der Linde was raised largely by his mother but left home at fifteen, forming a friendship with Hosea, a friendship of some sort with Colm O’Driscoll, and developing an ideology (of sorts) based on personal freedom and unconstrained anarchy. Later on he split from O’Driscoll after some bloodshed, and formed his own gang, placing himself at its centre and framing it around the aforementioned ideology. There’s clearly something of the religious cult leader about him, talking about a promised land – Tahiti, or maybe Australia – as well as giving passionate speeches that sound good until you start thinking about them. And of course, constantly telling his followers and friends to “have faith.” Dutch says that one so often it would be on his business cards if he had them.

But honestly, I suspect that Dutch is working backwards to feed his sense of self-worth. The paradise that Dutch pushes often has a worrisome air of “survival of the fittest” about it, but then again, why would that be a problem to him? He’s charming, handsome, intelligent, surprisingly educated, an expert fighter and master gunslinger. In a world where power is rewarded – such as the brutal chaos of the Wild West – Dutch reaps the rewards more than anybody. No wonder he developed all that pride. He’s practically the gold standard for Western outlaw heroics, and the people around him noticed that.

Problem is, the encroaching civilisation doesn’t work that way. As the West was slowly tamed, Dutch saw a vision of America coming where all men became quiet cogs in a grand, grey machine, and this terrified and revolted him. If he was made to be like everybody, he would suddenly be a nobody, the worst thing possible for a man like him.

So he builds up the Van Der Linde gang, with a sexy Robin Hood image and non-specific utopian ideals, dedicated to showing up the hypocrisies and failings of this new America. Obviously he’s the protagonist of this story. His supporting cast embodies the forgotten people, those who suffer from prejudice or never had the chance to make anything of themselves. Every job they pull is a strike against the establishment, and it adds to his infamous reputation…

… And then it all starts to come slowly crashing down around his ears as events makes it clear that however hard Dutch pushes, America can push back even harder. Dutch’s original goal seems to be to hit a bunch of valuable targets representing the establishment – banks, trains, corporations, oil wells, big business and those damned fat cats, etc – before making off with these riches to some distant land and setting up their own paradise, designed specifically to be this new America’s opposite. Lush, primal, simple, free, a final spit in the eye of Uncle Sam.

It won’t work. Dutch’s thinking is innately old-school and he wants to win on those terms, but the rules have changed and now he’s struggling to keep up. It’s implied that in the old days that when the heat got too much you could just keep going westward, running past the frontier into the wilderness, but that doesn’t work when civilisation stretches from one coast to the other. It’s not just a few dusty sheriffs pinning ten dollar bounties on the jailhouse wall, now it’s organised law enforcement and federal agents with money, manpower, and a jurisdiction that spans the whole country. Robberies and heists become harder to pull off, and even when they succeed, like the train robbery early on, they have lasting consequences that they can’t easily escape. The law is everywhere.

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Dutch stands with his friends – but also a little in front of them.

All these things make Dutch feel small and insignificant, which is why the few victories he can claim – an escape from a botched job, a piece of untouched countryside to settle in, or manipulating a group of Native Americans to attack the army later on – all of these things make him feel like he has a chance of winning, and give him the satisfaction of damaging his enemy, whether it actually helps his gang or not. They make him feel big, but the failures far outweigh the successes, and the pressure starts to mount on him, psychologically and socially.

So what we have here is a man who has convinced himself that he can win an impossible fight and has staked his self-worth on the outcome, as well as the lives of about twenty people who are all starting to notice that he’s not as infallible as they thought. When he keeps barking at them all to have faith, it’s a sign that his ego is taking a pounding and he just wants them to go back to the blind obedience they always had. He insists that the gang’s troubles aren’t his fault, it’s their fault for doubting him, because how could he ever put a foot wrong? If they could just believe in him as a saviour again, this would all start going back to how it should.

It won’t, obviously. Dutch soon begins to crack under the strain, especially after the heist at Saint Denis and Hosea’s death, and starts shedding his principles as dead weight, killing innocent people and beginning to look at his friends with distrust and resentment. But at the same time, he needs them, because if they won’t love him and call him their saviour, what’s been the point of all this? It’d be another failure for the list.

Compromising his ethics one after the other, Dutch doesn’t so much change as he is reduced down to the simplest version of himself: an egomaniac who wants to be lionised by the world, and eager to hurt the civilised part of it that makes him feel small and insignificant. He’s not entirely without morality, at least not yet, but it’s only a matter of time and the few good urges he has left feel more like a disguise than a real part of his being.

Which brings us to Micah, the moustachioed menace who purrs poison into Dutch’s ear and pushes him to more dangerous extremes than ever. Had Micah been acting this way to anybody else, Dutch would’ve likely seen him for the self-serving monster that he is, but flattery gets you a lot when it comes to a man who seems to need praise more than oxygen. Micah is certainly more cunning than people give him credit for, recognising the god-complex inside Dutch where Hosea and Arthur either don’t see it or don’t want to, and he uses this to manipulate him, telling him that every dark impulse he has is the right one. He feeds Dutch’s ego to bursting point, telling him the thing he wants to hear most: anybody who disagrees with you is wrong, and everything you say is right, simply because it was YOU that said it. Sure, Dutch probably knows on some level that this is bullshit, but admitting that would mean cutting his last lifeline for validation. Not only that, but the little rat is encouraging his pointless war with Modern America, making it Dutch’s highest priority. But while Dutch does it for deep-seated psychological reasons and a paper-thin ideology, Micah simply wants to make money and indulge his love of killing.

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Dutch’s desperation drives him to extremes, which only makes his many failures sting all the more.

The big turning point is when Dutch refuses to rescue John Marston from prison, seemingly for no reason. It’s surprising to say the least, because this should be exactly what Dutch would normally want, right? A dynamic outlaw adventure that tweaks the nose of Johnny Law, sends ripples out across the State and cements their ideals of brotherhood and unity. But instead, Dutch retreats back from the opportunity, uncertain and tentative, telling them to wait before they do anything, that he has to think of a plan first.

We never get a firm explanation as to why Dutch keeps dragging his feet here, especially when he was so gung-ho about reuniting the gang in the face of the early Blackwater debacle. Who knows, maybe Dutch was beginning to suspect John was a traitor and wanted him to suffer as revenge. Maybe Dutch wanted John to die so that the gang would rally in anger and see the law as Dutch does. Maybe he really was trying to come up with that perfect plan, and just needed a little more time to make it.

Perhaps it’s all of these, or none of these. Nonetheless, I suspect that the main reason was that Dutch had begun to suspect he wasn’t going to win this one, and the thought of losing yet again was terrifying to his ego. Problem is, it’s also humiliating to see his gang shouting at him to do something, so he can’t win either way. He’s sold himself for decades as “the guy with the plan,” but now he has no plans, his stock as a leader is in freefall, and law is closing around them. So when Arthur and Sadie go behind his back and rescue John anyway, it’s a sign that they’ve lost respect for his leadership – and boy, does that just ruffle his soul patch, especially coming from Arthur, now his oldest living friend. In his mind, it’s the ultimate betrayal.

And of course this leads to Dutch abandoning Arthur to his death during the raid on the oil fields,  followed by the awkward ride back home when Arthur ends up surviving. Dutch is being forced to choose again and again which matters to him more – his comrades, or his pride-fuelled vendetta, and he keeps picking the second option, pushed on by Micah, struggling to square in his own head the clear, depressing difference between what he started as and what he’s become.

It’s all too much by the end. Dutch sees a suit-and-tie-wearing world rallied against him, the corruption beginning to touch even his oldest friends. He makes further trouble by shooting Leviticus Cornwall, a pointless, gleeful strike against the fat cats that only makes their situation worse. Finally the gang implodes in a heady mess of blood, gunpowder and tuberculosis, and Dutch vanishes into hiding, at least until John, Charles and Sadie go hunting for Micah and discover that he and Dutch are still working together. Micah takes Sadie hostage, the Mexican stand-off kicks in, John appeals to Dutch’s long-dead nobility, and in a moment of shock, witnesses his former mentor turn on Micah and shoot him in the chest, saving Sadie’s life.

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High ideals are thrown away for base feelings and urges, but Dutch is determined not to realise this, and that the mangoes of Tahiti are getting further and further away.

This might sound like a heroic thing to do, and it largely is, but it’s worth reminding everybody that Dutch has been riding with Micah for a while, a man who had been reportedly slaughtering families without a problem. In fact, I suspect that Dutch killing Micah is less about the heroic angle as it is about something Micah says moments before the event. When John accuses him of murdering Arthur, Micah simply scoffs and says “it’s a new century!”

It’s the worst thing he could have said. Dutch sees Micah for what he is, sees how low he’s fallen to be working with somebody like that, and sees a person holding an injured woman hostage for his own ends, all while justifying his actions because of the march of modernity. Nothing could’ve been more abhorrent to the younger Dutch, and so he blows a hole in Micah’s torso before leaving the Blackwater fortune to his former friends, a last act of heroism before we see him again in Red Dead Redemption.

Sadly, several years later, Dutch’s honour meter has taken a turn towards the red, murdering innocents without a thought and tormenting John for fun. There’s even a moment in which Dutch holds a woman hostage at gunpoint, just like Micah did. He uses a modern semi-automatic pistol, a gatling gun and a typewriter without recognising or caring about the irony of it all. He’s become the thing he hated the most, and he can’t even see it.

John nearly gets to live out the true American dream – hunting down and murdering your boss – only for Dutch to trump him at the end by throwing himself off a cliff and committing suicide, though not before a little gunpoint monologue (boy, Rockstar loves having its characters speechify with a pistol shoved up their nose) in which the old man comes the closest he’s ever been to seeing the truth of himself and his pointless, painful predicament.

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“We can’t always fight nature, John. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothing. My whole life, John, all I ever did was fight. But I can’t give up neither. I can’t fight my own nature. That’s the paradox, John. You see? Our time has passed.”

In the heyday of the Wild West, Dutch Van Der Linde was a leader, fighter and rogue. And under that heady spell, thought he could take on the might of decadent, civilised conformity and win, then make his way somewhere truly free with pockets full of money and friends beside him.

He couldn’t. Nobody could. And the more he failed, the angrier he got. He made compromise after compromise, leaving behind his ideals, his friends, his morality and finally his sanity, certain that he could win next time, that a legion of bowler-hatted bureaucrats couldn’t hold him down forever, that he’d become the hero of the West he knew he was. That delusion was the last thing he let go of, moments before he took his own life rather than be captured and letting the government beat him one last time. What Dutch wanted never really changed, but a long time ago he decided he’d rather be victorious than be noble, the true tragedy of his character. His anger came from fear, his heroism came from self-obsession, and his vision, tragically enough, came from delusion.

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GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”

GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 1: “MISTER FREEZE”

Few video game traditions go as far back as the noble boss fight. From the valiant pursuit of a single pixelated barrel-slinging, kidnapper ape in the original Donkey Kong, to the cinematic destruction of cosmic beings and the gods themselves in the Bayonetta series, half the games we remember, we remember for their climatic showdowns.

That being said, a boss fight is no guarantee of excitement, nor of satisfaction. A lot of modern games are happy to condense what should feel like an epic confrontation down to a series of quick time events, like the pirate slavery goon squad leaders in Far Cry 3, or perhaps decide to test something totally illogical, like making the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls a platforming boss. Or what about Fable II, in which you spend the whole game trying to get to your hated nemesis, only to press one button and unceremoniously blow a hole in his head ten minutes from the end, never to be mentioned again?

So bearing that in mind, over the next week or so we’re going to be going over five great boss fights from gaming history, what made them work, what they have to teach us, and where they might just have fumbled too. And to begin with, we’ll begin with something a little…

Hold on, were there any ice puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t use up?

 

“MISTER FREEZE,” BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

Nobody would initially look to the Arkham series for examples of good boss fights. Out of the whole four games and all that DLC, I think I recall only one worth mentioning, maybe two if you count the Scarecrow sections (which I do think are slightly over-praised as a whole).

That boss fight is, of course, the confrontation with frosty foe Mister Freeze, taking place midway through the second game. After an uneasy alliance between him and Batman collapses with all the predictability of the Statue of Liberty in a disaster movie, Freeze seals the doorways with ice and decides to clip this bothersome Bat’s wings. Acting fast, the caped Crusader retreats into the shadows – and the game is suddenly on.

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

This is one of those fights that actually feels like you’re doing the Batman shtick, because Freezey isn’t going to just go down with a sturdy punch to the face. The guy’s surrounded by more metal than the editor of Decibel magazine, and the only thing apparently bigger than all that power armour is the ice-powered proton pack he’s carrying around with him.

So the key is to slink around, staying stealthy, and using all kinds of special tricks to slowly compromise Freeze’s suit until it’s worn down to the point where you can drive your fist through his helmet and take time showing him the true meaning of the phrase “cold snap.” But Victor isn’t exactly going to go along with that, and what makes him genuinely intimidating is the fact that every time you use one of your tactics, he does something to ensure it can’t be used happen again. Leapt up at him through a floor vent? He seals it shut when he realises what’s happening. Power up a generator to mess with his electronics? He’ll break it afterwards. Tried sneaking up behind him? He turns on a jetpack to burn you if you try it again. No gimmick will work twice, so you’d better be playing it smart, and playing it very, very careful.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

Oh, this is good for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, you’re forced to Batman as well as a Batman can. This is the make-or-break moment, where your cunning is suddenly put against an AI who learns from your actions, and it feels tense and exciting in a way that we haven’t encountered since Killer Croc in the first game, and certainly not as well.

In fact, considering you’re usually against thugs who pose about as much threat to you individually as a stale Hobnob, the single figure of Freeze suddenly throws that sense of superiority off-balance, making you feel like you’re the one being hunted. He can follow the warm footprints you leave behind, devastate your health bar in a couple of shots, and even getting close to him feels nerve-wracking, as he scans for a hint of bodily warmth or fires off drones to pinpoint your location. Not to mention the fact that his emotionless, artificial voice and glowing red goggles beneath the misted helmet make him startlingly creepy as an antagonist, even in a series that was usually pretty good at that sort of thing to begin with.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

As crazy as it sounds, I think a bigger environment with some more elements at play wouldn’t have gone amiss, nor would I have objected to seeing him come back in a different location with new tricks later on, considering he’s a great part of the game that’s finished with halfway through the second act.

Also, taking stock of Freeze’s tricks does take a while, but once you’ve worked out everything in your arsenal, he’s not as difficult as you’d think to take him out. The warm footprints can even be used to lure him around into certain traps, and he’s slow enough and loud enough that a clever player can avoid being caught without using their detective vision. Ideally, this would be the moment in which he brings in more drones or throws something new at you, but that never really happens. It’s not so much an error in the fight as the unused potential to be even better.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

A boss fight is not only some culmination of spectacle or the chance to try out a gimmick, it’s the moment where the player’s skills are truly put under the magnifying glass and milked for all they’re worth. There’s so many times where a boss doesn’t seem measurably much more difficult than their collected minions, and you wonder A) how they got to be the boss in the first place, and B) where on earth the challenge is supposed to be if not here.

But Freeze is most certainly the grand exam for the stealth element of the game, testing the player by forcing them to try out every pouch in their utility belt, not to mention stopping them from using the same tricks over and over. He pushes you in every respect, surely the true point of a boss fight?

Well, depends who you ask. I know some games that would Pokemon X. Er, I mean, that would disagree.

 

NEXT TIME: Big, bad and beaky.

PLUMBERS DON’T WEAR TIES REVIEW – 2 YEAR ANNIVERSARY & 100th ARTICLE SPECIAL

I don’t know what the universe wants from me any more. I really don’t. Every time I try a game that I think is the worst one ever, reality at large gives a cackle of malevolent glee and spits out something far more awful. I remember playing Tales Of Zestiria a while back and thinking I had reached the pinnacle of what was, paradoxically, the lowest point that gaming had to offer. How naïve I was! Since then there’s been a ton of crappy mobile games, the Steam Early Access garbage, the games that ended up technically broken or flat-out non-functional, and all the tedious franchise maintenance gruel that comes with a billion dollar budget and ten cents worth of good ideas. Then most of those would be topped by my attempt to play more than twenty minutes of E.T. without my head falling off, which would in turn be peaked by the actual revolted anger I felt when enduring Duke Nukem Forever.

But you know what? DNF is still a game in the most technical sense. It achieves that function, however imperfectly. On the other hand, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is… Well, I don’t honestly know. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, this thing beggars belief and probably buggers beggars for good measure, so confusing and abhorrent everything about it manages to be. Within five minutes of starting it up my jaw was hanging open, within ten minutes my eye was twitching dangerously, and within the first quarter of an hour I had run to the kitchen cabinet to find any sort of alcohol or cleaning fluid with which I could chemically numb the experience. After the forty-five minutes it took to beat this thing, I was in the foetal position in my chair, eyes wide and staring into the middle distance.

I’m genuinely worried that I’ve irreparably damaged my ability to critique games by playing this thing. I’m concerned that now I’ll be grading all others on a curve so steep that it looks like a mobius strip. I’ll be playing Dog Punching Simulator 2017 and thinking deliriously to myself “well, at least it’s not PDWT! Give that sucker a ten out of ten!”

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You ask for context, but I can give none – this game confuses me as much as it confuses you.

Some explanation is clearly in order. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is a sort of early interactive narrative from 1993; a surreal, erotic comedy (and I use those last two words quite wrongly) that feels like what a Telltale game would’ve been if it had been made on a computer with half the processing power of a typewriter, crafted with assets ripped inexpertly from leftover surveillance tapes, and all strung together by a writer with a rolled-up copy of Playboy lodged several inches deep in his forehead.

I’d always known about this thing by reputation, but by all accounts the game had been lost to time and to the uncaring march of technology… And then that changed a few months ago, when some noble fool committed to the cause of archiving gaming history found a working copy and made a functional port for modern computers, putting it online for the world to…

Well, not enjoy, but at least acknowledge. Preserving culture is certainly an admirable sentiment and one I’d normally be fully in favour of, but a big part of archeology is knowing what relics to put in a museum and which ones to throw back in the dirt, lest they pop open and melt your face off. And Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties does make me feel like how the Nazis must’ve felt at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – screaming in agony and begging for forgiveness from a callous, uncaring god.

Our epic odyssey starts with two characters so utterly boring and bland that I can barely remember that they exist even while looking at them. Turns out that Dick and Jane are each being pressured by their respective parent to pump out a couple of kids with a suitable breeding partner… At which point the whole story goes off the rails so hard that the buffet car is now orbiting Jupiter next to the monolith. So suddenly there’s a naked shower sequence! And then there’s a live audience cheering, though there was no suggestion of one up until now! Then there’s the most generic music in existence, looping over and over! Then there’s a narrator introduced fifteen minutes in, wearing the rooster mask from Hotline Miami and sitting next to a Benjamin Franklin statue, which is followed by a goofy slasher sequence over a girl in her underwear, which in turn precedes the introduction of a second narrator in a karate uniform! We’re two thirds of the way through the plot at this point, and somehow both nothing and everything has happened!

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Baffling and poorly photographed pictures run in a frenetic, hideous slideshow, whilst the audience is forced to listen to some of the worst dialogue ever written laid over the top.

“Disconnected” doesn’t do it justice. Trying to link the various ideas displayed in Plumbers makes me feel like a a conspiracy nut stringing together blurry photos of the JFK assassination and Bigfoot sightings on his apartment wall. It leaves your head spinning, but there is something darkly fascinating about witnessing such narrative anarchy. The subject matter and story direction changes with the wind, ricocheting from idea to idea like a fly trapped in a glass box and resulting a story so chaotic that you’re liable to end up feeling seasick. I thought I was numb at this point to poor characterisation and crappy writing, but I actually ended up screaming the words “what am I watching?!” at the screen, multiple times in the first half hour.

So you see my problem here, right? My ability to critique a game is dependent on there actually being a game to critique, not a set of unrelated images, words and sounds that plays like a damaged PowerPoint Presentation, designed by a lunatic with a fetish for blondes and bad photography. I feel like I’m staring down into an abyss with no visible bottom, but I have news for you all – the abyss doesn’t stare back into you. That would be poetic in some manner, and poetry requires at least a third of a functioning brain, something that was not available of the set of PDWT.

Now I have calmed down somewhat, let me try and explain “the gameplay” of this thing in detail. You’re presented with a slideshow of images that will be vaguely connected if you’re lucky, with a combination of sounds and narration playing over the top in an attempt to contextualise them and generate some sort of story. By the way, this audio design includes some of the most wooden voice acting and dreadful dialogue I’ve heard from… Well, ANYTHING, and I still remember seeing teenage couples trying to flirt with each other. Then, roughly every ten minutes or so, three text boxes using ugly font on a monochromatic background will pop up so you can choose one of them, and each one leads to a different slideshow with the same problems as before – or maybe even worse.

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Your choices of where the story goes are short, but certainly not sweet. The flavour left in my mouth was more along the lines of “burnt ash and failure.”

How do you know which text box to pick, by the way? God fucking knows! The game – and sometimes the characters themselves – will berate you every time you pick the wrong one, but the correct answer seems to be arbitrary to the point of being best deciphered with a set of tarot cards. The overall goal is to bring Mr. PornStar Plumber, Esq. and Ms. Hooters’ Employee Of The Year ’87 together in a healthy relationship, or at least what this game considers to be a healthy relationship, which is less “Casablanca” and more akin to “Debbie Does Dallas.” But when I failed to set them up early on and the male lead ended up dating a gay criminal, I actually cheered. Not because I was rooting for them to get together – I wasn’t, that’s more investment in this saga than any sane person could maintain – but because it led to a GAME OVER screen and gave me the opportunity to get a refill of rum that would help ease the pain of my second attempt. Why couldn’t I get my booze earlier? Well, clearly installing a pause menu or a save/load option was a bit more than the budget could handle, so once you start the story going you’ve basically stuck for the next hour watching it play out.

It’s also a blisteringly sexist game, but that practically goes without saying with a premise like this. Our female lead spends the first few scenes staggering around uselessly in a shirt that shows enough cleavage to embarrass Elvira (and with far less charisma and self-awareness than Cassandra Peterson ever showed), before that shirt is removed from her entirely as she runs through the streets screaming like a damaged kettle. Even when the narrator is replaced by a female one, she is later shot to death by the original using a Nerf Gun. I’ll say it again – what the hell am I watching? And more importantly, when in god’s name can I stop?!

By the way, if you leap into this expecting at least some sort of erotic thrill, then you’re completely out of luck and then some. I will give Plumbers the most minor credit, in that male and female nudity are given equal presence in the “sexy” scenes. I suppose that shows some sort of misguided attempt to include everybody equally in this train wreck, but it’s pointless trying to get people invested in this game for any reason beyond Stockholm Syndrome. The nudity is so tame that I’d believe this game was rated twelve before I believed it was rated eighteen, with the occasional infrequent shot of somebody’s backside and at one point a poorly-photographed nipple, which probably wasn’t even much to gasp about in 1993. I can’t understand how they got this element wrong, of all things. Making porn should not be difficult, you just drop two or more people on top of each other and play some bass guitar in the background! Somehow, in some way, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties screwed that up too!

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You know you’re onto something terrible when the cast looks less interested in being there than you do.

At the end of the day, the question is this: can PDWT provoke enough “so bad it’s funny” amusement to justify the effort required to hunt it down? Um… Well, I never really laughed playing it, but I’ll admit to being impressed by the amount of paint that would’ve presumably had to be huffed so as to inspire the scriptwriters. Maybe you could hunt down a recording on YouTube just to witness this mess firsthand, but for the love of God, if some time traveller offers you a copy of this thing and asks for actual money in return, punch them in the nose for that insult.

I’ll finish by saying what you’ve already worked out, loud and clear. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is the worst game I’ve ever played, bar none. It is a mindfuck of epic proportions, to the point where viewing it with hallucinogenic drugs in your system would probably normalise it by degrees. This erotic comedy game isn’t erotic, isn’t funny, and isn’t even a game. It’s just a stark, staring look into the horror of the human soul, that little void within all of us where we hide those terrible thoughts and urges that we dare not let loose – and standing there in the middle of it all is a man in a chicken mask and a gold bow tie.

So it is with great humility that I bestow upon Plumbers the worst scores I am capable of offering – two thumbs down, one hundred percent rotten, five Piers Morgans out of five, and yes, the holy grail of holy crap – a zero out of ten. There is nothing in this thing that works on any level, as the whole game just ends up being insulting, baffling, or terrifying. Should I ever commit suicide, the associated note will be written on the back of the game’s box, and will be over in five words.

“Can you really blame me?”


0/10

The worst game I’ve ever played at time of writing, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties appears to have made just about every poor decision a game’s creators could make. My eyes, my soul and my hard drive have been forever tainted, and the only time I felt anything positive for this game was the stab of envy that occurred when I saw how easily and how efficiently the file was deleted afterwards.


 

Oh, and happy two-year anniversary/one hundredth article, by-the-by. Huge thanks to everybody for enjoying my work and suffering alongside me all this time. Even when there’s crud like this, it’s still more fun than I’d ever admit, and you guys make it worth it.

THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

FIREWATCH REVIEW

Walking simulators are always slightly odd, aren’t they? To my mind they feel eerily reminiscent of the old point-and-click adventure games, only without the pointing and clicking, which ironically was usually the worst bit of point-and-click adventure games. You didn’t spend two hours bumbling around Monkey Island trying to work out how to combine some aspect of the landscape with a packet of breath mints and a dented spade for your own enjoyment. There was always way too much trial and error to get any pleasure from it all, not to mention that the LucasArts and Sierra games treated logic and common sense like something that was only weighing them down.

No, you put up with all this rubbish because you got the reward of story and dialogue at the other end, with the possible addition of a pixelated set of breasts if you were playing Leisure Suit Larry, you loser. But walking simulators – sorry, interactive narratives – seem to have just cut out the middle-man, edging ever closer to that fine line which separates a video game from just being a DVD with a really detailed menu screen.

Whatever. It seems that large, open-ended maps with somebody talking in your ear is now a genre in its own right, and whether that genre lives or dies depends on the conversation skills of the ear-dwellers who accompany you. The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide were solid because of their writing, but in these games if there’s any time that somebody isn’t talking at you, it all becomes increasingly dull, mainly because you have less power to affect useful change than the average horse. Check out Proteus for an example of that experience, one that’s like being suffocated to death with a particularly vibrant pillow.

So the pressure was on Firewatch to pull its finger out and really show all those bigwigs and AAA jocks from the football team how good narratives are done. Not that those jocks could give a festering ham slice for the quality of their own stories, having multiplayer and gameplay to fall back on; but I suppose we work with achievable goals or else we go mad, right? Hell, that’s why I’m giving up smiling next year.

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“This is Rubber Duck to Feather Duster. Come in, Feather Duster… And what are you wearing, by the way?”

And for what it’s worth, Firewatch’s story is good… Mostly. We begin with an effective introduction sequence that details the life and loves of Henry, a middle-aged, bearded everyman that grows guilty and panicked in the wake of a tragedy he feels he can do nothing about, and literally flees into the woods to escape, signing up to become a lookout in a national park for several months. And within ten minutes he’s started a weirdly personal relationship with Delilah, another lookout who he never actually meets, but maintains near-permanent radio contact with as the game goes on.

What I like about Firewatch is that it’s fairly coy about its intentions for the whole first act. Several story threads sprout like beanstalks almost immediately, and it’s difficult to guess whether you’re going to experience horror, comedy, drama or what-have-you. Which doesn’t mean that the story is indecisive, only that it’s so humanly chaotic that it really does feel like it could conceivably go anywhere.

But for those who want some indication of what to expect, you’re basically in for a character drama, which then starts to lean towards a psychological thriller in the second half. And both of these work pretty well. Henry and Delilah are both compelling, likeable characters with good chemistry between them, and the game’s main mechanic of rewarding exploration with more dialogue is pulled off superbly, purely because it’s nice to hear them bounce off each other in yet another light-hearted conversation that clearly has more significance than either of them would like to admit. The first act (and most of the second) is basically the story of their blossoming friendship, and this means that we have a very firm grasp of their characters when the thriller plotline rolls around, and as thriller plots go, it’s a goodie. I won’t spoil, but Henry makes a discovery that throws all his time there into doubt and suspicion, whilst a mysterious third party toys with them from the shadows. It’s pretty killer stuff, and the further I got into the mystery, the more I was hooked. It even gets genuinely intimidating at times, stumbling through a dark forest when you know that there are probably eyes trained on you – but god knows where from, or who’s watching.

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Well, at least Jack Torrance lasted longer at the Overlook this year.

“But Joel,” I hear you ask, “if Firewatch does all these things right, then why did you preface your Pulitzer-worthy analysis by saying that it was ‘mostly’ good?”

Well, person who just offered that question to a computer screen, I’m glad you asked. Partly because we now know you’re unstable and can avoid you at parties, lest you strike up a chat with the television, but also because it leads into my primary criticism of this ‘ere game.

For Firewatch, having really grabbed my attention for most of the main story, then turns around and craps itself in the last forty-five minutes. The thriller plotline, having been all onions and gravy so far, is then required to deliver an explanation for the mystery in order that we may bring this saga to a satisfactory close. Sad to say that onions and gravy don’t last for ever, and we’re left with dry bread to chew on until the curtains fall.

For the mystery’s conclusion has all the impact of a dead bee falling into a swimming pool, as the writers picked out the flattest, least interesting answer and just offered it up to us without any real panache. I won’t say it doesn’t make sense in context, but it feels unworthy of the set-up and doesn’t appear to have any real weight. Hell, even if it turned out that Q from Star Trek had been screwing with us the whole time, it would’ve made for interesting conversation, despite being bonkers. But we don’t get that here, just something that feels small, cheap, easy and unremarkable. And though the absence of other people is good for setting up the atmosphere early on, in those last sequences you can feel the game straining for reasons to keep you isolated.

Look, I don’t want to make suppositions about projects that I wasn’t involved with. Who knows what happens between that first pitch and final result, right? For that reason, I’d never say that Firewatch is a game that had the first two acts written in a burst of excited inspiration, before the writers then realised that they had no idea what it was all building up to. I wouldn’t say that, I don’t know what the truth of the matter is…

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It looks like I took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque! Neheheheheh!

…But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were the case. And now I’m on this well-trodden path of negative thought, it’s also worth acknowledging that the park itself starts to get a little dull to walk through after a while. It’s certainly very beautiful, with a slightly stylised look that promotes bright colours and changes naturally between environments without ever feeling like we’ve just jumped between two Minecraft biomes, but the park is smaller than it seems and ends up becoming less explorative and more of a commute. Using the map and compass to find your way around is a rather nice feature, though. I suppose that’s more gameplay than most of these interactive narratives will usually offer.

Do I recommend Firewatch? I suppose I do, yes. It’s only a few hours and doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability, but the first two acts are strong enough to be a real guide on how to do these kinds of games well, even if the ending evokes the image of somebody using up all their inspiration too soon and having to weakly bring the whole thing to some sort of technical conclusion. I hear there’s something you can take for that, but if you find yourself still writing after four hours than you may want to book an appointment with an editor.


 

7.5/10

Firewatch aims higher than most walking simulators, with a deeply-personal story that organically expands into a larger mystery with intriguing stakes, but then decides it’s not as brave as it thought it was and throws out a paper-thin ending to mollify the audience. That said, three-quarters of the story is more than solid, and the environments are nicely designed, if a little too small.

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

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The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

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Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

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Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.