Over the last year I’ve been playing Zelda. A LOT of Zelda, actually. Wind Waker, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, A Link Between Worlds, Oracle Of Ages, and Metal Gear Solid 3 on the 3DS. That’s not a Zelda game, I just hate it so much I want to grumble for the rest of this paragraph about how awful it is. Ugh.

And though I have great affection for Zelda, like many Nintendo properties I think it could use an injection of fresh blood, not just remaking it periodically with alterations at the fringes, like putting a woollen jumper on a decaying sheep and hoping nobody will notice. All ideas lose their lustre and charm the more we are exposed to them, and concepts that seemed good at the time can age poorly or be supplanted by better ones.

Admittedly, it’s an exercise in futility to demand change from Nintendo (or at least the good kind of change, such as NOT reducing Mario to an infinite runner and compromising on elegant and nuanced design), but I’m going to demand that change anyway. In an age flushed with reboots, reimaginings and remakes, it’s not hard to concede that another one could make its way forward and even achieve some success. This is my hypothetical Zelda game that’ll likely never get made, despite the fact I’d want to see it.


This is the first thing you work out, because good design should complement and serve a basic narrative. And whilst it’s not usually done that way round in the industry, this is a fantasy and I’m going to indulge myself a little more before we finish.

First of all, we throw out Link being a character with no personality. Wind Waker proved that he’s more likeable when he emotes realistically, rather than trying to be a blank canvas for the player to project onto. Emotionless Link doesn’t work now and never really did, the idea was just so inoffensive that nobody cared too much. Maybe we keep Link being silent for this game, because a voice might be jarring at this point, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give him obvious drives, hopes, desires, fears and complexities. After all, the hero’s journey demands a proper hero at the centre, not a training dummy on marionette strings who has no more investment in what’s going on than the average deku nut.

Which brings the question of what exactly Link wants to achieve. Well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’ll go with the classic explanation and say that Ganondorf is being evil, so Link has to hit him with a sword until he stops. But “generically evil” isn’t enough of a reason for somebody to commit atrocities, so we ask ourselves another question: why is he doing this?

Well, it occurred to me that we never really see things from Ganon’s perspective, not properly. There’s certainly not much of a personal motivation to defeat him, as he usually has only a couple of appearances in each game, once at the beginning to announce that he’s there at all, and once at the end for the boss fight where you kick his ass.

Which is where my central story concept originates from – I would structure a narrative in which Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and an extra fourth friend (no, not Tingle) grow up together as children and genuinely get along, before the Triforce then shows up and ruins everything by gifting each of the main three heroes a third of its divinity. Zelda gains great wisdom and understanding from her segment as per usual, whilst Ganon is hit with the Triforce Of Power and promptly goes megalomaniacally insane from its influence, unable to function stably now that he’s been hit with the power of a god.

See what I mean? My Ganon would be a good person corrupted by an object that was not intended for mortal usage, hence why his close friend Link has personal investment in stopping him and separating the two. It’s like the second Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, but with a gold triangle instead of a robot octopus. Ganon isn’t evil at his core, but the Triforce has warped him into a monster, making him both more frightening and more tragic all in one go, especially considering his new insanity would cause him to attack his friends for their pieces of that golden triangle.

Which brings me to the last point – Link is NOT the receiver of the Triforce Of Courage. Everybody thinks he has it, including himself, but what I’d actually do is send it to that fourth friend I mentioned and reveal the truth in the third act before the finale. Because it would make Link’s acts of heroism all the more heroic, as he’s not backed up by magic and he’s not a chosen one. He’s just a guy who stepped up to do the right thing, and that was all that was really needed. Link, the unnamed new character and Zelda work together to bring Ganon down, and rest is all details and plot points to be finalised later.

Who would that fourth friend be? Well, I was thinking of a younger kid who looks up to the rest of them, the symbolic representation of innocence and purity that lies in the balance. The game is about trying to save civilisation, but we see that struggle represented in the confused emotions of a younger friend, who embodies the battle of good, evil, power, courage, wisdom and more, deciding where his loyalties are owed. Exciting stuff.

Which leads us to the question of where to put this epic saga. The grand, sprawling majesty of Hyrule Kingdom? Well… No. Not exactly.


Here’s something else to make the diehard Zelda fans bluster a bit. I would confine my story to one city, and one city only, with maybe a bit of land around the outside as and when plot demands it. Probably Hyrule capital, as the existence of Zelda herself suggests that her castle has to be in the area, but it doesn’t have to be there if we decide to reincarnate her like they did with Tetra.

Because if there’s one thing these games have always done well, it’s oddly emotive and endearing NPCs and random townsfolk. When Ganon blows up everything in Ocarina Of Time, the only part that made me sad was seeing the bustling market square turned into a lifeless ghost town. I couldn’t really care less what happens to the fields and plains outside, because nobody lives there except Maron, her lazy father, and their entrepreneur field hand Edmund Blackadder.

So double down on the city and personality of everything within it, making the whole thing feel like one vast but diverse settlement that all connects to each other. Make various districts, regions and locations that are visually distinctive, and include a likeable melting pot of all of Hyrule’s races. Maybe the Zoras live around the river, just next to Gorontown and its Hard Rock Café, arf arf. We should be establishing from the beginning that for all its faults, the city is something good, something that needs protecting and deserves these efforts to restore it.

The point of this is that when said city is threatened, the audience gives a damn and feels invested. Ganon promises to blow up the world in a lot of these games, but considering you never stay in one place for more than ten minutes, it’s hard to care about any of it. Having the whole map feel like Link’s home – albeit a very big and messy home – means that there’s a sense of community, and ideally enough of one to make the audience shout “hell, no” when a demonic boar comes threatening destruction.


Well, right from the start it just makes sense to boost Link’s basic agility, increasing his climbing and jumping skills, as well as giving him the option to sprint. This is a city full of rooftops to be run across, alleys to hide in, crowds to duck through and drainpipes to climb, and Link is some simple urchin who would know how to scamper around an urban landscape. Enhance the ability to parkour across the town a bit and now it’s a vast, three-dimensional map that’s simply fun to traverse on its own terms. And not only that, but we can make it even more fun with the reintroduction of a couple of old toys from Zelda lore.

Those toys are the hookshot and the deku leaf. For those of you who don’t know, the latter was a Wind Waker item that functioned mainly as a parachute, slowing and controlling your fall whenever you leapt off something. So clearly it has an obvious function in any game where roof tiles are the new pavements. I don’t want to see my innards getting scooped into a barrel by some grimacing guard every time I slip on a drain gutter and take a tumble.

The hookshot is equally self-explanatory, a retractable grappling hook that historically has allowed Link to rappel up surfaces or drag enemies towards him. Here it would fit the mechanics like a glove, allowing you to swing over gaps, launch up the sides of buildings, and be used as a more central weapon in combat, but more on that later.

And none of that snapping to first person in order to aim it, OK? We can do that on bows and arrows, but here the emphasis is flow of movement and not stopping if you don’t have to. Take influence from Arkham Asylum, with the little symbol popping up on hookshot-friendly ledges when you get close enough to them.

And then there’s the puzzles, and right away I can think of something I’d do to change those: integrate them more cleanly into the world around them.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the things I liked most about Majora’s Mask is that the time-travelling puzzles made sense within the context of the story. You find out that an old woman got burgled last night, so you hop back in time to prevent it from happening with your new knowledge. That all holds up within the established ideas of the world and doesn’t feel like the game is intruding on the story and setting.

But most puzzles in Zelda games don’t feel that natural. There is no real reason the water temple would have several buttons to change the tides, as well as moving platforms and spikes that lead to a chest holding a key that opens a door on the other side of the building. And don’t think you can get away with just calling these labyrinths “tests of courage,” either. In my Zelda game, the puzzles are either based on navigating traps set by somebody who genuinely doesn’t want you to progress, or more focused on plausible problems within the context of the world around you.

Finally, I’d make my dungeons and my open world a little less distinct from each other. Not cut out the dungeons altogether, but don’t make them an entirely separate pocket dimension. In the urban context it makes sense that most of them would be located in buildings, so why not have the option to access them through different entry points? Not as some mandatory thing that you do because you can’t complete the dungeon otherwise, but because you’ve found out from an NPC that you can deactivate certain traps and get a good sniper position if you try going through the higher window first.

I’d also make dungeons shorter and much more common, maybe a dozen brief rooms each, with most of them being optional and containing various new abilities. With time, all dungeons get frustrating, claustrophobic and run the risk of being repetitive, so we break up the monotony before it can ever sink in.

Notice how I very specifically DIDN’T say power-ups just then, I said abilities. Hacking your way defiantly through some secret labyrinth should unlock new attacks, or fresh options in combat and exploration. It should NOT just make the weapons and moves you already have become more powerful. Link is a small child going up against the hordes of darkness – it makes sense that he’d be fighting intelligently, utilising a bag of tricks scavenged from various hidey-holes around the capital.


Which I guess brings us to combat mechanics proper, and if there was anywhere in the Zelda games in need of a tune-up, this was it. First of all, Nintendo can sort out the targeting system, for god’s sake. Just make it how every other game in the universe does it, locking on and switching between enemies with the right analog stick. I’m sick of trying to engage in combat with some ravenous beastie, only for the Hero Of Hyrule to advance nervously on some dozing caterpillar far beyond it, all because the programmer doesn’t know the correct etiquette for target-lock.

And as mentioned, I’d also increase the utility and importance of the hookshot, maybe using it to replacing the shield altogether. Remember, my Link is a nimble, light-footed rapscallion that won’t block an enemy attack if he can avoid it altogether, and in my mind the shield would be a heavy, unwieldy thing that comes with suitable penalties. But by using the hookshot in tandem with the sword, I’d like to see the player drag enemies around with the chain, disarm them of weapons, throw them into other foes, trip them up, and maybe work with environmental objects in order to get that edge in combat. How cool would it be to organically swing over some goon’s head, only to pull down a damaged wall with the same item and squash him with the debris?

I’d also remove the aspect where you stun-lock most enemies easily. For a while in the 3D Zelda games it’s been pretty simple to get the edge on most bad guys by rattling their heads with the Master Sword until they die, but that won’t fly in mine. Ramp up the AI intelligence so that they know how to deflect a sword blow AND recover from one too, so it’s less about knocking down various armoured weebls than it is about looking for the opening or opportunity. A lot of enemies won’t even leave easy ways for you to attack them in the first place, making the environment essential for success.

Same principles apply to bosses, which admittedly is something Zelda has usually been pretty good about. My choice of bosses would be a rogue’s gallery of monsters, mercenaries and minions, all of which have legitimate backstories that explain their actions. Which is why upon defeating them that Link doesn’t just kill/desummon/explode the bastards, but hands them over to the city guard for a just trial. After all, this city is meant to be something good, right? It knows how to treat criminals with respect.


So there we have it. Rather more experimental than most Zelda games, but I think there’d be real potential in something like this. Originality and reinvention associated with old products is often approached with disdain by hardcore fans, but if Nintendo are going to keep making these games, I’m going to ask that they acknowledge the times we live in to some degree.

Did you think this premise sounded solid? Can you think of anything you’d add or subtract from Zelda games as a whole? What games would you also like to see tackled in this way? Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll be looking at refining a certain sneaky-stabby franchise that’s now coming back after a temporary hiatus – and no, it’s not Assassins’ Creed.


Orcs! They’re like the P.E. teachers of the fantasy world; big, brutish and with the kind of intellect that makes you look for the nearest point of escape. Or maybe that’s just me.

Of course, when I say fantasy I mean Lord Of The Rings. You know, that one fantasy template, the one that everybody copies from when the idea bucket is running low and they just can’t be bothered any more. Why think up diverse and impressive worlds when you can just do what everyone else did and steal from the once-unique ideas of J.R.R. Tolkien?

The latest video game incarnation of Middle Earth to grab people was last year’s title, Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. It’s a very good game, a mix of Arkham Asylum’s combat with Assassin’s Creed’s free-running, in which you waddle around Sauron’s backyard, sandbox style, frightening the orcs who live there and occasionally beheading them when you feel like it.

All of the above is a plus in my book, and though the story was basically forgettable, the game featured some interesting ideas. The one that stuck with people was the Nemesis System, perhaps one of the most innovative ideas for sandbox gameplay in years. Everybody I spoke to about it was certain that this would set the standard for these types of games, and I can understand why they’d think that.

See, whilst Mordor is flooded with your standard breed of orc, a few of them get to be captains, randomly generated and part of a tiered hierarchy into which they are inserted. Let me give you an example.


“These are awesome! Guys, come check out my new contact lenses!”

Let’s say you’re wandering through Middle Earth, picking your nose, and you get jumped by a gang of enemies. A random orc lands a fatal blow and suddenly he becomes a captain for having killed you, known as Flegmog The Bug-Eyed, or whatever. He gets put into the hierarchy at the lowest rank. A little later we hear reports that he’s been on a successful hunting trip, and has levelled up. He’s now more capable than before, but he’s still lowest rank.

Not for long. Flegmog has eyes on advancement, and thinks he might be able to take on his boss, Rabflib Headsmasher. Fleggy challenges him to a duel, and if he wins (something you can witness and even intervene in) he levels up again and also takes Rabflib’s place. One axe-swing later, he’s rank two, with the resources and power to match.

Meanwhile, this sort of thing is happening all over Mordor. Captains are competing, getting killed, getting promoted, getting trained. You can get involved at every stage, get invested and alter the events however you wish. If a captain you dislike is holding a feast, you can poison the grog to lower his standing or even kill him. Or, if you want to him advance, you can make sure that everything goes according to plan from the shadows and get him through the night, raising his standing with others of his kind.

This would all be good enough on its own, but later in the game you get the power to hypnotise and control orcs, including captains. This itself opens up a thousand new possibilities. Maybe you want the high warchief dead, but don’t fancy your chances in a direct fight.

No problem! Brainwash a lesser orc, make him become a captain and start working him up through the ranks, helping in his duels and the like. Finally, you can make him join the warchief’s entourage, at which point you telepathically suggest that he mash his leader to death with a hammer. If he wins then he’ll become the replacement warchief, a valuable asset considering that he’s still under your spell.


“And whilst you’re at it, can you put up some shelves in my living room?”

There’s other aspects I haven’t even mentioned, like how orcs have personal weaknesses and strengths to research and exploit, how they’ll remember details of previous encounters with you and even how some of them refuse to stay dead. At one point I threw a particularly fat orc onto a fire and watched him roast to death, before smugly walking away, action-hero style.

Unfortunately nobody had told fatso that this should have killed him, and as I was travelling later I suddenly heard a yell, and turned to see that Chubso Porkchewer had returned, albeit covered in horrible burns and screaming for revenge. He’d been training too, taking some effort to put down, but when I finally impaled him through the stomach and pushed him off my sword, I felt pretty good about myself.

Except that it didn’t work, and a few hours later my fat friend was back, his ample gut covered in bandages and promising that I wouldn’t get to stab him again. Bloody hell, forget Sauron. This psycho is the true villain of my game.

And I guess that’s the point, that it was specific to MY game. The whole thing was wonderfully organic, a real gem of an idea, and those I was talking to were insistent that this sort of thing was going to be seen more and more.

Well… No. At least, I don’t think so, not really.

Don’t take the wrong impression, there’s nothing wrong at all with the Nemesis System. In fact, it’s pretty awesome and one of the most memorable creations in recent triple-A gaming. I just think that this is a one-time deal. Maybe we’ll see variations of it come back a couple of times in the next few years, but I’m not convinced it’ll revolutionise sandbox gaming as everybody was saying it would.

For a start, I can only imagine how jaw-droppingly expensive this was to make, not to mention how many man-hours had to go into it. Getting the algorithms right, creating enough physical and statistical traits to keep the orcs fresh (relatively speaking), testing these new ideas and recreating them through trial and error – the final cost must have been staggering, the kind of numbers that make Bill Gates shocked.

This really is one of those projects that can only be done well by major game developers who have the capital to back them up. Maybe you could get lesser versions done with lesser budgets, but it’ll get old fast. Basically, this was one hell of a commitment and not something you can just drop into a game if you feel like it afterwards. This is something you had to work at, something you had to invest massive amounts of time and effort into creating. I don’t see many developers doing that, knowing that it won’t be as exciting the second time.

Not to mention that it’s hard to think of a game that would suit this system better. Somebody suggested a crime sandbox like GTA, with a structured system of Mafia goons, but I don’t think it would be as good without some serious changes. It seemed to me like Shadow Of Mordor was designed from the ground up with these ideas in mind, which is why it worked so well. Your own deaths are part of this cycle, your hypnosis powers are a fundamental aspect, two dynamics that could only be applied with a very particular type of story. One of the reasons that the Nemesis System was so effective was that it fit the concept like a glove, to the extent where I almost wonder if they came up with the mechanics first and made a game to fill the gaps around it.

It won’t apply so well in other games with different stories, not without some major restructuring, and even then people will see through it. They’ll look at these ideas and say “oh, it’s like Shadow Of Mordor – but less tightly designed and without all the options of the original. Better luck next time.”


“Oh, god! <cough, cough> Right, the second I brainwash you, I’m making you eat a whole crate of breathmints.”

That’s not to say people won’t try. If there’s ever a sequel to this game then I expect that it’ll have a similar thing, because people will expect it. And maybe a few other publishers will try to unsuccessfully imitate the process without understanding the subtleties, but it won’t take long for it to sink in that this is a faithful hound, one that can’t be given to a new owner without biting them quite badly.

The Nemesis System will, in that case, remain a brief firework, something that shone all the brighter for its inevitable disappearance. And that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s still a great game that people will remember for a long time. It would be nice if some other game managed to improve on it, but I don’t think it’ll happen. It’s fine already, and it’s OK to leave it alone now.

Think about it. Would Fawlty Towers have been improved with another season? Would Hamlet have needed a spin-off? Would Bioshock have needed a direct seque- Oh.

Well, I guess that proves it, then.


Spoilers! Big, bouncing spoilers for Arkham Knight up ahead! If you haven’t played the game yet, or if you don’t want anything ruined for you, go read another article now. Seriously, we’re dealing with the big one here.

Alright, this time it’s another bit on how the most recent Batman game failed my expectations, and I realise that I’m sounding pretty down on a game that was actually really good. There were only two major problems with it: the quality of the PC release, and the identity of the Arkham Knight himself.

For those of you who haven’t been following the news, the Arkham Knight was a character invented for this game by Rocksteady themselves, a sort of evil reflection of Batman who wears an Iron Man-style suit with a vague militaristic theme, and has some sort of grudge against Bats himself. A key part of the main story is the big question, “Who is the Arkham Knight,” and sure enough we find out about this mystery figure in the final third of the game.

You want to know who it is? You sure? Last chance to back out.

Alright, it’s Jason Todd. And suddenly the history of Batman has to be repeated because most people won’t know who the hell that is.

Basically, there have been three people who have held the position of Robin. The first one was Dick Grayson, an acrobat who had his family murdered or something. He went on to become Nightwing, probably because people kept making fun of the Robin costume and Batman was being the joyless that prat he is.

Then we had Jason Todd, who gets killed by the Joker (except that he didn’t), and he was a bit violent and kind of a wanker. No great loss there, I think. There’s something kind of embarrassing about a snot-nosed brat acting like the Punisher and trying to be all gritty and dark. Oh, shut up, training bra. Go watch Scooby-Doo and we’ll let you play with the big boys if you’re very good.

And now we have Tim Drake, who pretty much got the job because he briefly met Grayson one time and managed to work out who Batman was. Sounds like a circuitous route, but I guess Starbucks wasn’t hiring.

Anyway, Todd is back. I mean, he’s around in the comics too, as the vigilante Red Hood, but this is set before that, and Todd is revealed to have been secretly left alive. He’s imprisoned in an unused wing of Arkham Asylum, tortured by the Joker and made to hate Batman, whom he thought had abandoned him. After burning letters into his face and generally having a good time hitting him with anything he could find, Joker then sets him lose, whereupon little Jason spends several years training his own army and getting billions of dollars. No, I don’t know where he got the cash, put your hand down.

Knight 2

Holy uncomfortable helmet, Batman!

Anyway, Jason returns in a mech suit, calls himself the Arkham Knight and sets up a big plan with his new buddy Scarecrow to torment Gotham for some contrived reason I couldn’t quite work out, all so that he can kill Batman.

Wait, can’t you just go and beat him up? Jason seems pretty reluctant to get involved with Scarecrow’s plan at all, and keeps breaking away from the schedule in order to go kill Bruce Wayne. There also doesn’t seem to be any reason to hide his identity, but he does anyway. Surely knowing that his old sidekick is trying to kill him would hurt Batman more? For a guy who’s spent years working out his revenge, he’s missed some rather obvious points. Or maybe he just read the script and knew how to pace the story.

I’ll be honest, I’m not impressed with this reveal, for a number of reasons. First of all, Todd had no presence in the games up until this point. He wasn’t mentioned until this instalment, having basically been considered ancient history until now. When he was brought up in an off-handed way it became immediately clear that he was the Knight, to the extent where I wondered if they were trying to bluff me. It seemed a little too obvious, you know what I mean? Surely Rocksteady can write a better set-up than this?

No, it turns out that they can’t, but there’s other stuff that’s iffy too.

The developers claimed that the Arkham Knight was a completely original character, for one thing. And whilst the design of the suit is certainly new, I think it was a little cheap to say he’s a fresh concept when the guy inside the costume has been around since 1983. I guess if you stretch the logic somewhat then it’s not quite a lie, but I still think it’s also not the truth. If I wear Groucho Marx glasses and a fez, it’s not quite right to say that I’m an entirely new citizen. Maybe they’re playing on the dual-identity of the character and we’re supposed to view him as a new man, but I don’t care much for these metaphorical shenanigans.

The problem was that among die-hard fans, Todd was a very early suspect and considered one of the most likely entities to be dwelling behind the helmet. And whilst I understand the writers trying to lure us away from the reality by stating that it’s a fresh concept, it ends up diminishing the reveal of the character.

See, we like to have all the clues to hand when we look at a mystery. We want a fair examination of the facts, so that we can grin at the eventual revelation and see how every fitted together. But giving false information… Well, that’s just cheating. Especially if it’s fake info given in an actual interview, and not in the game itself – that’s sacred ground, isn’t it? You can’t just trick the fans before we’ve even bought the game, we’re assuming that everything said to the press has been honest. I don’t think we should have to study your PR campaign to work out when you’ve been sniggering behind your hand or not.

The other thing that made it eye-rollingly obvious was that part of the pre-order DLC for Arkham Knight was the “Red Hood” pack. As mentioned before, Red Hood is the title that Jason takes when he returns from the dead, and this just made his presence even more likely. It would have been like Darth Vader wearing a “world’s best dad” barbeque apron in The Empire Strikes Back.

The end result of all this was a vague sense of disappointment and frustration from the fans who’d been engaged in the mystery. To those who didn’t know the comic lore, it seemed like Todd had been thrown in at the last minute to fill the gap. To those who were aware of the history, it confirmed one of the first suspicions they’d had and came across as too easy.

I wasn’t impressed either, not least because I could think of several characters who could’ve worked as the Arkham Knight without disappointment. My personal preference was Barbara Gordon, aka The Oracle, aka Batgirl, who I think would’ve been almost perfect, if they’d just tweaked a few details.

Think about it. The Arkham Knight is only assumed to be male because of that voice distortion gizmo he’s got in his helmet. Imagine the reveal, hearing that electronic growl slowly revert to the calm, younger voice of the Oracle, and seeing Batman’s face turn to shock as he realises he’s been betrayed. She also has the motivation, losing the use of her legs because Batman let the Joker live one too many times, a disability that the Arkham Knight suit could have been built to cancel out. Another possible twist that would have made sense.

Actual Knight

You might have everybody else fooled, but I’ve got my eye on you…

Like the Knight, she’s a technical genius with an intimate knowledge of Bruce Wayne and access to money and resources – Bruce’s money and resources, more specifically. It would’ve been a chilling moment for him to return to the Clock Tower and discover pieces of his old suits had been combined and altered to make this new one. On top of which, remember that all the information he obtains about this new foe comes from her. It would be fun to watch him get lured around by this cuckoo in the nest, feeding him a false trail of breadcrumbs.

There’s other good reasons why it should have been Barbara. She’s had a strong presence in all the games, so the impact would have been at its highest, unlike Todd who meant little to the series. Her death is faked halfway through the story, so she would’ve had free reign to orchestrate her plans as the Knight from that point on, and she’s had a lifetime of practicing acrobatics and combat as Batgirl. It was almost a perfect match.

I do think this would’ve been the better option. Admittedly, it still wouldn’t fit with the “entirely new character” smokescreen that Rocksteady threw up, but I think we’ve just got to put that one to the side for now. Exactly what original characters could’ve been in there, Quincy Sharp? That pudgy old man wouldn’t have been very impressive to watch, not to the mention the fact that I wouldn’t have cared at all if it had been. No, it had to be an established character so that they could have some emotional weight. It’s just a shame that the writers couldn’t admit it to our face.

Despite all of this, Batman: Arkham Knight is still a great game and worth your time. Just not on the PC. By the way, how’s that coming?

Arkham Knight Delay

… Fine. I can wait.


I realised recently that there’s something missing from Elite: Dangerous, something I’m glad to see didn’t make the final cut. You see, E:D always sold itself as an MMO, but something so iconic to MMOs has been left out: the levelling system.

Most of them have one, of course. You know the sort of thing I’m referring to. Bing! You’re now level twenty-eight! All your stats have marginally increased and you have some points to drop into a skill tree! You are now better at the game because we say you are! Although you might have become this legendary hero simply because you’ve been wandering around the starting area, killing millions of frogs with a spoon for all we know, because experience is experience and you might simply be a dedicated amphibian-smasher.

I find myself wondering about the point in levelling systems as I play more games, especially when it doesn’t seem to contribute much. Shadow Of Mordor does it best in my mind – rather than affect your stats in any proper way, and go through the risky business of making you overpowered, instead you just spend points on a grab-bag of tricks that are all helpful, but never fundamentally change anything on their own. That’s something I like, it makes the game more dependant on skill than statistics. You’re not just the best because you have the best numbers, you have to put some effort in, boyo.

But in many MMOs it’s simply not about skill, only about your stats. Any game in which a completely new player with eight thumbs and their eyes pointing backwards can still smash buttons and win against an veteran player with a lower level character, that’s a game that seems to have missed the point.

ED Anaconda

It looks impressive, but it’s being piloted by Hans Moleman, Mr Bean, and the police force from the Blues Brothers. It’s only a matter of time.

It’s why I like the Elite: Dangerous system – yes, you have a far lower chance of winning against a massive space cruiser, but you can still do it. Fly smart, use tactics, keep out of range and try to get the best angles, it’s not as hard to beat those star destroyers as you think. Better weapons don’t count for much if you can’t aim them, and a fast ship won’t help if you keep flying it into asteroids.

Borderlands 2 had a level system that implemented increased stats too, and it was just as pointless then. All it meant was that going back to old areas became insultingly easy and turned into an absolute chore. A level four rakk? Please, I’m level thirty-two and running DPS out the wazoo, you might as well surrender now and beg for mercy.

Some people like going back to old areas just to stamp all over the local enemies that troubled them the first time, but I’ve never seen the point. It just seems boring and repetitive, though I know this is standard formula for many MMOs. Why not just ditch stat tweaking as you level up, and have all the enemies at set difficulties to keep a consistent challenge going? Ironically Borderlands 2 seemed to realise this after a while, and added a mode where enemies scale to match your level. Yes, it’s an improvement, but you’ve still missed the point, Gearbox. Just ditch this number stuff, and you wouldn’t have to struggle with all the level balancing.

That said, I do know why games include levelling in this way, especially online games with subscription fees like World Of Warcraft. It’s because levelling is seen as progress, albeit progress of a boring, uninspired kind. You’ve put in the legwork, do you really want to give it up now after all you’ve, ahem, “achieved?”

I get that it has a curiously addictive feel to it. You’ve levelled up! Look at this little fanfare and the way your character lights up like a beacon! Yes! You’ve done it! You’re the best player ever! Anyway, get back to mindless grinding for two months more and maybe it’ll happen again. No, don’t think about how bloody tedious the actual game is, just focus on the experience bar and work on filling it up for the fiftieth time.

It seems to me like this is similar to holding a beer mug underneath a slowly dripping tap. It takes days and days to fill up, watching the dull process of how it gradually trickles out in tiny droplets, but when it does – a drink! A lovely, crisp, cold beer. Right, now that it’s over, we’re giving you a slightly bigger mug and a tap that drips slightly slower. Here we go again.

Not to mention the fact that with subscription fees, you’re paying money to endure this horrible process. Why on earth would you do this? I wouldn’t sign up for Chinese water torture if I got a chocolate bar every other week.


And yet, this empty courtyard is perhaps one of the most interesting things World Of Warcraft has to offer. Don’t believe me? Well, tell them that. This is one of the screenshots they’re advertising the game with.

The other reason that subscription games include levelling is that it’s an aspirational thing. Your friend is the highest level and you want to match his accomplishments, but if there wasn’t a difference to that mechanically, it wouldn’t be worth much. But if being level eighty-thousand means you can fell an Uber-Dragon with a single blow, then people will put in the effort, forgetting that it’s functionally the same attack but with a different particle effect and a higher number stamped on.

But all these reasons don’t mean much when it comes to your enjoyment. They’re not there to make you have fun, they’re put in to encourage you to keep playing. They want you to get addicted, and the false idea of progress is as tantalising a drug as any other.

Occasionally I might concede that levelling is necessary. In Pokemon, for example, you’d have to do some major restructuring to the mechanics to make levelling obsolete, otherwise it would be silly if you could take on the Elite Four from the very beginning. But then again, the fact that levelling is at its core doesn’t mean it’s good. One of the constant problems with Pokemon was that you could just grind to five levels higher than you needed to be and stamp all over any gym leaders that happened to be in your way, regardless of whether they had type advantage or were supposed to be a challenge.

So I’m not sold on levelling as a system. Maybe I’ll be persuaded otherwise, but I’m not so sure. It’s going to take some work to urge me that basing a game around a spreadsheet and a lot of patience is the best thing for the player.


Like so many good things in the gaming industry, Valve did it first and best. “Meet The Heavy,” the first animated trailer for Team Fortress 2, was released in May 2007, featuring the Eastern-European colossus getting overly excited about his minigun, like somebody on a train trying to explain YuGiOh cards to a stranger.

It was a funny little video and since then there have been about a dozen separate TF2 shorts to promote the game. But recently I’ve started to see others like it, most with that detailed animation style and emphasis on character humour. The funny thing is, they all keep coming from a certain type of game.

The free-to-play market is one of those things that started out with so much potential. Good games could be released to the public for no cost, and if they provided a good experience then players would be motivated to donate money for additional gameplay benefits, or even just to show their appreciation. Loadout is a good example of this – a fun game that doesn’t require any money, but unlocks more options if you do feel like putting some cash into it. Everybody wins.


Why don’t you at least be honest, Final Fantasy? Have the characters beat the bad guy to death with wads of cash or something.

Then it became this horrible, bastardised version of what it was. You weren’t downloading a game any more, you were downloading a platform onto which you could basically rent gameplay for a short amount of time. Then a barrier would be thrown up again, and the game would demand more money like a baby demanding regular feeding, only a great deal less lovable.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Dungeon Keeper Mobile and Final Fantasy All The Bravest are probably the most offensive examples, particularly the last one. In FFATB, you essentially just pay a micropayment, at which point the game will briefly play itself for a little while, until it gets tired and needs more cash.

Nothing could have been more insulting, it showed what Square Enix really thought of its fans. This kind of mentality is what leads to publishers thinking of customers as “whales.” You know what I mean, and you who think like that know who you are. “They’re just profit on legs, and any way we can cut the money out of them is to our advantage.” You know, it is possible to make some green and still retain your mortal soul. It’s easy – look at what EA does, and then do the opposite.

But anyway, for some reason I’ve kept seeing animated or even live-action trailers for free-to-play games online, and it’s weird. Clash Of Clans, Boom Beach, that Game Of War trailer with the distractingly buxom goddess – it’s baffling to me how these things help, because they’re inevitably unrepresentative of the game itself. If they showed tiny little sprites blipping around a cut-rate management game, that would be fine, that would make sense. That would actually be the game they’re selling you, but they’re not showing you that. They’re doing character jokes, and physical comedy, or having that chick with the enormous rack ride in slow motion in front of the camera, just to give you no credit whatsoever.

Cleavage Queen

Game Of War would like to remind you that breasts exist. Thank you for your time.

And I’ll admit, some of the trailers can be cute or funny. I laughed at a couple of the Boom Beach ones, but I didn’t laugh when playing the game. It was just boring. But I think I now know why they do this, they’re trying to make that TF2 lightning strike twice.

See, one of the things that raised TF2 above the level of the average shooter was the characters. They all had distinct visual personality with exaggerated features and physiques, and would often make funny, conversational quips during matches. The online trailers served to reinforce those personalities and flesh them out, until we were playing with genuinely likeable characters whom we could understand and appreciate properly. Whenever somebody asks me my favourite class to play as in TF2, I’ll usually say the soldier. But when I’m asked my favourite class in total, I usually say either the Spy or the Medic, both of whom make me laugh and are truly amusing archetypes.

BB Gameplau

I think if you show this gameplay to somebody for ten minutes straight, it has the same effect as a beer with a roofie in it.

But these free-to-play games don’t have that. All they have is boring gameplay with financial barriers added in, so what do they do? They try to inspire personalities in their little sprites, and hope we get attached, hope we feel invested. Look at Clash Of Clans – the games don’t tell you jack about all these disposable minions and how they feel about things, but the trailers would have you think otherwise. The barbarians are nuts, the archers are sensible and the wizards are egotists.

It’s fairly empty, but it’s all they can do. It’s like giving names and character traits to all the furniture in the living room, in the hope that people will enjoy sitting on it more. They won’t – it’s still bland, basic furniture – but they don’t want to risk showing us actual footage. They want players to think that it’s all a wacky, sitcom-esque series of jokes and one-liners behind the cash wall and the dull gameplay.

Boy, are they in for a disappointment.


Who doesn’t love stealth? Everybody loves stealth. It allows us to avoid boring people at parties, steal cookies from those who are distracted, and creep up to the window of the women’s changing room with a camera so that you can – well, I think you get my point.

But stealth in games doesn’t always work right. I was playing Hotline Miami yesterday, and whilst bashing skulls like they’re piñatas is definitely fun, there was one level in which you had to sneak around all your enemies, and being spotted instantly sent you to a game over.

Basically, the game’s design allowed well for insane gut-chopping action, but struggled when it came to creeping about. But why is this? Surely stealth is just regular movement, only out of the view of enemies, right?

Nope. If it were that easy everybody would do it. There are ways to do stealth well though, and here are my top tips.



What do you mean I can’t kill people? I want to get my stab on!

This was perhaps my greatest issue with the Hotline Miami stealth section, and probably my greatest bugbear with stealth games in general. Don’t tell me I’m dead just when I get spotted, because it’s absurd. It’s like being failed in a shooter because you missed the target once.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being spotted shouldn’t be a problem for you. In a stealth-orientated game, going in quiet should always be the easiest and healthiest option. But you need to have a back-up plan of some sort. Dishonored and Thief allowed you to swordfight your way to safety, and even Alien: Isolation gave you a flamethrower to push back the Xenomorph when it finally noticed that a skinny girl in Reeboks had been giving it the slip for twenty minutes. But these options tended to be more dangerous, and that’s the best way of doing it. It allows for panicky moments of adrenaline, switching gears from “softly, softly,” to something more along the lines of “AAAAAGH!” Classic.


Even if you’re letting us screw-up the stealth and still get to play, there are going to be times when we decide to make a mad sprint to choke out a guard. And then, as he turns around and sees a player character descending on him with murder in their eyes, he manages to get out a single meaningless noise, before being given the bear-hug of sleepytime that all video game protagonists learn on their first day.

But oh wait, that little squeak he managed to get out has echoed around the warehouse and to every human ear within, and now they’re all headed for my location with heavy ordinance. Yay.

Yes, being spotted should remain a problem, but there has to be a slight gap between visual contact and every alarm bell ringing like mad, because it gives the player time to react. The Batman: Arkham games get this, because whenever a goon sees you he has a moment of terrified flinching before remembering that he’s holding an assault rifle, and it gives us time to choke him out, or punch him in the jaw, or throw a bit of metal at his skull whilst we dive for cover. It’s not long, maybe a second or two, but it works. Developers, take note.


This is probably the most common offender, because it’s so often symptomatic of games that don’t have stealth as a core mechanic but want to crowbar it in. Basically, you need to establish what rules we’re working with. Are we invisible if we’re just in shadow? How close do we need to be to an enemy? Is sound going to be an issue? If players don’t know, they’ll just err on the side of caution and be too tentative to get anything done, and they’ll just get pissed off when they do eventually get seen.

Mark Of The Ninja is a good example of demonstrating how you do visibility. When you bumble around in plain sight, you’re rendered in all the primary colours the animators had to offer as normal. But when you move to a point where bad guys won’t see you, like ducking into an alcove or pretending to be a charity worker on the street, you go completely black and white except for a few aesthetic choices. That’s good, that works. It also shows how far the sounds you make can be heard, which is a useful feature, and I remember This War Of Mine doing the same thing. It worked in both of those games, and it’ll work in others too.



Look, let’s be reasonable here.

This might seem surprising after I’ve spent the last three sections demanding changes in gameplay in the player’s benefit, but I actually don’t want gameplay that’s easy, only fair. For example, Dark Souls is hugely difficult, but it’s fair,rarely taking anything away from you permanently and rewarding effort when you finally win. Whereas enemy snipers in the easier game: Sniper Elite V2 (retch) are very unfair, because they’re impossible to notice until they’ve shot you at least once. How the hell am I supposed to react to something I’m not aware of, Sniper Elite V2? “Sorry, you’re breaking up,” it giggles, spawning another couple of snipers who immediately start to line up a kill.

Stealth is at its most intricate when the enemy knows what they’re doing, where they act like thinking creatures. The worst stealth has always had guards on short circular rounds, guards who forget about you once you’ve passed out of their sightline. It’s like I’m infiltrating a base guarded entirely by goldfish.

Again, Alien: Isolation is a good example of this, as the Xenomorph is actually intelligent, learning as you make mistakes and utilising the knowledge that its gained, not to mention taking large, unpredictable routes that can constantly surprise you, creating tension and jump scares through organic means. At one point the bastard saw me emerge from inside a locker, and even though I managed to drive it off with the last of my flamethrower ammo, I later saw it tearing other lockers open to search for the tasty treat inside, like the caramel in a Creme Egg. Ugh, gives you chills, am I right?


Admittedly, this doesn’t always apply, but there’s enough games that don’t take it into consideration that it needs mentioning. If you’re going to let us sneak up and suffocate guards, make sure we have the speed to get to them without alerting anybody. There’s something surreal and absurd about approaching an enemy from behind, only for him to stroll nonchalantly off at a pace I can’t match, at least not without making a racket he’ll notice. It’s like dancing the conga with somebody who doesn’t know you’re there.

Head smash

No, it’s a stealth game. Really, I swear it. Oh, shut up and start swashbuckling.

It doesn’t have to be running, or even that uncomfortable crouching walk that all protagonists like, (which is actually a lot more awkward on the knees than you’d think). Dishonored made the smart move of adding a short-range teleport, that allowed you to bamf around like Nightcrawler on a sugar high. Stuff like that is not only useful, it’s fun to use, so get creative. As we’ve said before in the super-sandbox article, individuality and personality can be the lifeblood of a game.

So those are the five steps in how not to be seen. The first three are the biggest offenders, but they’re all valuable points when it comes to the ancient art of pixel sneaking. Maybe one day we’ll finally manage to get these points hammered home as an industry. Though judging by how unwilling developers seem to learn them, it will probably be around the time that the consoles on which we play these games have attained citizenships.


You know what? To hell with E3 for now, I have something I really want to talk about. A game from 2011, one that you almost certainly didn’t play. I don’t think anybody played it, because I’ve never met anybody who has, and I know more than four people. And it wasn’t like this was some minor indie game, it was made by Ubisoft, it was enjoyed by critics and the few who tried it. But somehow this great title slipped under the world’s collective radar. How did that happen? Surely when a goose lays a golden egg, people should appreciate that, not just roll it to one side and look again under the bird again to see if a platinum one shows up.

The golden egg in question is Driver: San Francisco, and I love it because it’s a racing game for people who don’t like racing games. Everything seems to be making the effort to shed the dull, overused mechanics of regular driving games for a more unique approach.


Cars! They’re like airplanes, but less interesting.

D:SF is an open world game in which you play as John Tanner, a man who has never left a car seat in his life. I assume so, anyway. I only say that because I’m several hours into the game, and Tanner hasn’t been pictured out of a vehicle’s driving seat yet. Even when he went to get coffee, the game just quickly cut to a scene of him and his buddy back in the car with their drinks in plastic cups, like it was terrified that the idea of Tanner using his legs for anything other than pedals might freak us out completely.

It might sound like I’m railing on the story, but I’m actually not. The whole thing has kind of a 70’s cop show feel, in fact it reminds in particular of two shows. The first is Starsky and Hutch, for obvious reasons. Two police investigators driving around in an iconic-looking race car and performing insane stunts to catch a man who is almost as evil as an EA marketing executive. It’s so light-hearted and goofy, it’s hard to dislike it. Even if you drive down the street or head-on into traffic, nobody even gets killed, they just throw themselves unfailingly out of the way or shout angrily from their crumpled cars, which I like. It keeps the tone light and fun.

The other show it reminds me of is Life On Mars, because one of the first thing that happens in the game is that the hero gets mashed by a truck and is put into a coma. Whilst the real Tanner lies drooling in bed with his partner sitting next to him, we play as Tanner within his dream world, and it’s from that aspect that the most interesting part of the game comes up. See, clearly John read one or two comics as a kid, because the second he gets shoved into the land of nod he gains the power to astrally project himself, leaving his body to float above the city, before possessing other drivers and taking control of their cars.

This is probably my favourite part of the story, when Tanner gets over the shock of gaining this power and loses himself in the joy of living life with no long-term consequences. He bounces from person to person, enjoying the momentary flashes of other people’s lives, and the game manages to get some fun ideas for missions from that fact. The best bit is where we take over the body of a teenager who’s learning to drive for the first time, being mercilessly bullied by his instructor whilst he cowers in fear. At which point Tanner, the offspring of Michael Schumacher and Evel Knieval, takes over the kid and decides to freak out the mean ol’ teacher by performing the kind of tricks that get your vehicle classified as a weapon of mass destruction.


I think he’s chewing me out for having crashed into an old lady’s hatchback again. Not that I’d know, my mind is about six miles away by now and looking for more cars to break.

The “shift mechanic” is one of the best things I’ve played all year. Chasing a runaway car? Just take over a civilian vehicle ahead and smash into it from the front. Crashed the car you were driving? Just warp to the next one along with no loss of flow. It’s such a simple idea, so beautifully executed. I spent a couple of hours with a seventies mix on my iPod, just driving around and performing side missions, cackling every time some punk went straight into the front of a fire truck that “mysteriously” swerved to meet it.

It does have flaws – buying cars seems pointless when you’ll have dumped it for a new one a little way down the road, and vehicles tend to slide out of control a lot, but these are minor issues. Driver: San Francisco is currently in the Steam Summer Sale for less than three pounds, but even at the full price of ten quid it would be worth the money.

I guess there’s a lesson to be learnt here, that we must give everything a chance to surprise us. I never expected D:SF to be this awesome, but I’m glad it is. Maybe there is something in every genre to delight us, even if we don’t expect it to, something that we can appreciate and –

Whoa! I continue this train of thought and I’m going to have to play MOBAs without bias. Yeah, time for me to stop.


Well, well, well. Of all the things to pop back up out of the woodwork, who expected Doom? Nobody born after 1995, that’s for certain. I was surprised that anybody remembers what Doom is this far forward.

But yes, the new Doom game was revealed at E3, and it’s got all the subtlety and temperance of a suicide bombing, though I don’t think it’s without its charms, in a weird, homicidal way. It seems to have shrugged off the sludge of modern shooters pretty well, avoiding aspects like cover and regenerating health, whilst focusing more on psychotic murder sprees and beating a monster to death with its own leg.

I have to admit that I started grinning when the double-barrelled shotgun made a sound like a sledgehammer coming down on a bob-bomb, and all that was left of the victim was a couple of surprised legs that slumped to the floor a moment later. I’m even willing to ignore the fact that this was stolen from Bulletstorm, so happy was I to see something that was just so… Gleeful? Is that the right word? I hope it isn’t, but I suspect that it is.

You can’t help but be slightly stunned by how much Doom clearly delights in wretched amounts of gore. Gunshots leave visceral splatters, melee takedowns involve terrifying feats of brutality, and one puzzle is solved by watching a monster kill someone before finding the victim’s corpse, so that you can rip his arm off and slap it on a palm scanner. How about next time we just go with a keycard, yeah?

Doom hands

Look, will you hold still? I’m just trying to get the sand out of your eye!

I will say that I hope that Doom doesn’t try to do horror at any point. The gameplay made it clear that the Marine is the most powerful thing since Superman on steroids, so any attempt to threaten him is going to seem silly when he’s just ripped out a demon’s intestines and garrotted it with them. You can’t say it’s not tonally consistent for there to be horror, but I’ll be honest – it would surprise me if any demon had a kill-count anywhere near that of the protagonist’s by the end of this game. Perhaps I’m getting the wrong impression, maybe this is the set-up for an Alien: Isolation style game in which you play a frightened Revenant, trying to avoid the evil, unstoppable Space Soldier who will think nothing of murdering you in the most awful way possible. Huh. Now I kinda want to play that too.

I do wonder if it’s in Bethesda’s interests to resurrect Doom from the grave this late. The old Doom titles have a great lineage and demand respect, and nothing pisses off a fanbase more than a company bastardising the memory of an old franchise so they can make some cash from name recognition. Thief, Syndicate, Prince Of Persia, XCOM, and the embarrassing mess that was Duke Nukem Forever, they’re all examples of this. The only way to get away with that is to make the best game you can, and I’ll be damned it if doesn’t look like they’ve done that.

Let me add that I much preferred the Doom presentation to the Fallout 4 one. That’s what I wanted to see, Bethesda, ten minutes of uninterrupted and varied core gameplay giving a good indication of what we’re going to be experiencing, not dialogue trees and the most boring combat scenes in the game. If village maintenance reared its ugly head in Doom, it would get a fist pushed so far into its face that it would be able to smell its own brain. And speaking of utter absurdity through violence, let’s look at the game properly.

Doom scanner

The most intellectually sophisticated thing in the gameplay trailer was centered around ripping off a man’s arm. I’m strangely OK with that.

As mentioned earlier, the guns look nice and cathartic, with two exceptions – the plasma rifle and the chainsaw. The former is easier to explain, it just looks boring, making generic pew-pew noises with no sense of weight or impact to it. But the chainsaw seems odd, almost a bit pointless. The game already established that we can kill an enemy if we’re close enough, and not only that, we can do it quicker than the chainsaw, which takes longer and runs the risk of breaking flow. Though that isn’t going to stop me from using it often – I mean, it’s a chainsaw for killing demons. Even if I had to break my fingers every time, I’d still do it, because IT’S A FUCKING CHAINSAW FOR KILLING DEMONS.

I’m also very much in favour of how the game keeps a fast pace by having enemies drop health. Good action games like Saint’s Row 4 have remembered this, it’s a fantastic way of rewarding reflexes and going on the offensive, and of course Doom is nothing if not offensive. I like how you move really fast, I like that there were no directional icons when the puzzle bit came up, I like how you can hold more than two weapons, and I’m definitely going to find a place in my stony heart for the Heavy Assault Rifle, a gun that wouldn’t look out of place on top of an aircraft carrier and was so powerful looking I’m pretty sure you could bring down a planet with a couple of clips worth of ammo.

So at the end of the day, I guess Doom looks pretty good. I’ll be interested to see what kind of story there is – “Hell invades Mars” is all very well for the nineties, but I’d like to see a bit more thought put into it this time, just to contextualise it nicely. But if that hits the mark, then I’ll definitely be on board. Here’s hoping that E3 was actually honest today – because if not, then I’m going to be very disappointed.


Yes, we’re back, and yes, I know that Game Of Thrones has already had video game adaptations, though I should point out I haven’t played them yet. Telltale’s approach to the series is in my Steam wishlist, but I haven’t gotten round to buying it.

Anyway, last time we focused on what games would translate well to our TV screens. I voiced an opinion, everybody in the universe agreed with it, badabing badaboom. High scores all round, especially to me.

But this time we’re looking at what TV can bring to games, and whilst HBO’s softcore-porn-and-hardcore-violence series has been a huge success, it seems it hasn’t quite brought its A-game when it comes to the world of interactive media. The best translation is apparently the Telltale one, and even then it’s considered one of their weaker titles, at least in comparison to gems like The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands.

But it seems to me that they’re all going the wrong way about it, because the key to Game Of Thrones has always been the enormous scale of Westeros. The decisions of an elite few shape the destinies of many, so why not reflect that? Get that right, add in some nude shots and throat-slitting, and you’re golden.

The duo

Of course, some Kings you could let die, to gain morale instead of losing it.

The idea I’ve been tossing around is a sort of hybrid of Sid Meier’s Civilisation V, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Star Wars: Battlefront, with a bit of Shadow Of Mordor thrown into the mix. As you’ve probably guessed from this crazy cocktail, this might get a little complicated, so bear with me. Then again, if you’re a fan of the show, you can probably deal with complexity.

Firstly, you pick a house, and I don’t mean a nice two-bedroom semi-detached with a garden. No, you pick one of the seven houses to be a member of. Targaryen, Stark, Tyrell and so on. Each one will give you different perks accordingly, such as a bigger budget for the Lannisters or uglier soldiers for the Ironborn, that sort of thing. You could even pick the The Night’s Watch to fight against White Walkers, which would be fun.

Then you get your base somewhere in Westeros, like Winterfell or King’s Landing. You spend money and resources on certain aspects like technology or expanding your lands. Perhaps you fill your halls with food to prepare for an enemy siege or the threat of winter.

Then we have war! No, I don’t care why or who with. It could be one of the wars mentioned in the show, but it doesn’t have to be. Remember that George R.R. Martin’s massive world has some history behind it, so we could always play something from its past, or just take a little creative liberty.

So what then? Well, you play the game like a general for a bit, moving your armies around to prevent the enemy getting close to your base, protecting your resources and making tactical decisions. You spend money when you have to, take it back when you can, maybe run the risk of being indebted to Littlefinger, who will have demands in return.

And what happens when armies clash? Well, you drop down to join them. You take control of a commander in real time, fighting your way across the contested land and moving soldiers to strategic points, but still getting stuck in and slashing your way across the battlefield if you have to, which is where Battlefront and Shadow Of Mordor come into it. If you die, you take control of another commander, but your army loses morale. It might not even be a battle – you could demand the assassination of a target, only to play as the assassin. And if he fails, it’s permadeath, and your next attempt becomes that much harder when security is bolstered. Of course, you could always just bang the local red priestess and get things sorted that way.


Think about it. Talion’s already got the job of standing on a big wall to keep out all the uglies from proper society. Swap out the bear cloak for a big black feathery thing, and the boring elf ghost for Ghost the dire wolf, and we’re ready to roll.

I guess I want to make combat a living, breathing thing. It’s always annoyed me how in otherwise superb games like Civilisation 5 that a whole battle – its strategy, its ideals, its people, its equipment – are all just boiled down to a vague percentage and a yes/no option. It just seems a bit lazy, a bit unworthy of the concept. What if I win, but I’ve committed soul-destroying horrors to do so? What if I lose, but the death of my men motivates other powers to get involved in some way? I don’t want it reduced to just statistics. It would make it too distant, and of course, we want to see the fight itself. We’ve earned that much.

Speaking of other powers, I definitely think that contracts and secret deals should play a big part of this game. Game Of Thrones is nothing without its nasty political backstabbing and two-faced advisers. We touched on Littlefinger (ew) and the idea of going becoming financially indebted to him with some rather worrying consequences. That should be part of a major aspect to the game, in which you can talk to many influential figures across the land and try to make decisions that benefit you. Well, I’d like to borrow some livestock, so how about a payment of ten grand a month for a year? Oh, you want my armies, do you? Well, how attached are you to that daughter of yours? I’ve seen her giving me the eye, and I think we can come to some sort of arrangement.

Ahem. Moving on.


We may have to rethink the “child murder” policy, my Lord. It’s starting to affect your standing in the polls.

The endgame should of course be victory in war, but there should be multiple ways of doing that. Either a straight battle, in which you march to the enemy’s king and lop his head off; or perhaps a battle of the minds in which you destroy the morale of his kingdom. Cut him off, quarantine his lands, prevent any trading with the outside world and watch them starve. Then it’s only a matter of time before the civilians and soldiers surrender and bring the monarch to you. It’s evil, but when did that stop a Game Of Thrones ruler?

I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of this one. I like proper combat like in Shadow Of Mordor, and I like tactical stuff, but the two rarely work when they’re mixed into one. But what we’d have here is one influencing the other. Imagine that you move your army on the map to go against another military force, and the reports say that this should be an easy win. But when you get there you screw up on placing your soldiers, you have eight commanders killed and everybody gives up and goes home. The battle is lost, and suddenly you have to deal with the result.

Actions influencing decisions, decisions influencing actions. Round and round it goes. It would be complex, but intuitive, like Civ V. You can work it out as you go, because it all makes sense. Yes, stockpile food when you can afford to. Yes, put the archers on that high point. No, I don’t want to swap a dragon for that quilt your mother made.

And of course, never, ever go to any weddings. It’s just not worth the risk.


You know how I like to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon? Well, sometimes I like to lie on the sofa with a bar of chocolate and a good book. Other times I like to go for a walk, which reminds me of how much I hate the countryside and the outside world, at which point I go home and head straight for the sofa again, Cadbury bar at the ready. But mostly I think I like leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper, picking up lorries with my bare hands and shooting lasers out of my palms, all done through the power of spandex and suspended disbelief.

Everybody has their own way of relaxing.

I really like the superhero sandbox genre, because if you’re lucky they’ll be some fascinating new take on the whole thing. Running, driving, shooting, occasionally climbing, there are a billion games that offer those kinds of activities, and it’s very rarely new or original.

But playing as a super-powered ponce in tights usually means that driving around in a car is the choice for noobs, when you can always just bounce up into the ozone layer with a single push of your radioactive thighs, and drop down to make a crater in your chosen location. Why use a gun, when you could charge straight at your foe, deflecting his machine-gun fire with your nose, and headbutt him into the next postcode? Why pick a lock, when you could bash it down with single flex of your unrealistic pectoral muscles?

But there’s some things I wish I saw more of in superhero games, things that always seemed like obvious choices to me, points that they so often miss, and we’re going to start with a particular bugbear of mine: what’s the obsession with gliding?

Don’t get me wrong, I guess gliding is vaguely cool, but it always seems so agonisingly close to the more exciting option, that of unrestricted flight. The very few games that allow the player to fly are always really kick-ass, but so many others get all coy when the option is brought up. All the big super-sandboxes contain gliding, yet there would have been nothing wrong with letting us take to the skies that I can see. Let me show you what I mean.

Prototype contained gliding, when there was nothing in the map that would have been ruined by flight. Crackdown 2 opted for gliding, yet another mistake it could add to its roster. Saint’s Row 4, intended to be one of the craziest games in world, only allowed true flying with the “Gat Out Of Hell” stand-alone expansion release, and even then it had to be within the designated areas. And sure, I guess it wouldn’t have made sense for Batman to get that upgrade to his cape in Arkham City, but why not let us get in that fighter jet he has and zoom around in there?


Gliding! It’s like falling, but less interesting.

I think there’s something irritating about gliding, because of the fact that it means you constantly fall short of your destination and break all flow of movement. You know what I mean. Leaping from the Empire State Building to the next skyscraper along is awesome, and even if you miss, you land with a crash and can just bounce back up with the next jump. But if you throw yourself towards it and start to glide, it’s slow and painstaking, breaking any sense of flow, and of course, you’re constantly uncertain if you’ll actually make it there, which makes it all the more infuriating on the times where you don’t.

On the regular occasions where you do fall short of the rooftop, you end up scraping your head against the side of the brickwork for a bit, as you slowly and embarrassingly float down like a discarded piece of paper, cursing the harsh mistress that is gravity and wishing that stupid kid could’ve gotten his own balloon back. What an inspiration to the city you are, masked hero. And now your secret identity is safe even without the mask, because you left most of your face peeled off against the east wall of the Chrysler Building.

OK, it doesn’t have to be flying that you swap it out for, but there’s enough games where you can pretend to be a disinterested kite that I think gliding is something we’re saturated on now. Why not think of something new? 2004’s Spider-Man 2, one of my favourite comic-book games of all time and the first truly brilliant super-sandbox, treated the webslinging as something dynamic, and it really was. It was something you actually had to work at, timing your swings and measuring angles to maintain the fastest speed possible, making it very organic and fun, treating it less like a method of travel and more like an extreme sport.

So movement needs to be as engaging as possible. Don’t just give us sprinter’s legs and a hang-glider before you call it a day, go for something a bit more. But what about combat?

SP 2

Look, I’m sorry you’re getting mugged in an alleyway, but I’m having too much fun!

To my mind, the name of the game here is power fantasy. Fine, sometimes it’s going to be smart to throw something of equivalent strength at the player, such as a giant monster or another berk with superpowers. But individual human enemies should be as easy to take down as a drunk Essex girl in a nightclub, and I can tell you why.

Combat is often at its most fun when we’re fighting vast waves of highly inferior foes, knocking them down until they have a new appreciation for tenpins in a bowling alley. The numbers make up the difference in strength, and of course, no matter how it goes you’re still going to look like a badass, because even if you lose, you’ve downed forty people armed with assault rifles along the way. One of my favourite sequences in Arkham City has you fight infinitely spawning enemies, but they’re all as substantial as water balloons and go down in a single hit. Now that was fun.

But if you drop next to a mugger with an uzi and barely have time to say “What’s all this, then?” before he turns around and reduces you to Swiss cheese, then you’re going to feel a bit ineffectual. Even if you win the game at that power level, the inevitable city-sized boss fight at the end is going to seem a bit silly, when you know deep down that Smackhead-Joe and his brakka-brakka toy could have sorted it out just as well. So keep the player powerful, or at least the most frequently powerful figure with the exception of big bosses. It makes it nice and cathartic.

And finally? Well, I’d quite like to see some cool new powers. That’s a stretch, I know, I don’t think there are many good ones left, certainly not many original ones. It’s a good thing that abilities aren’t copyrighted by superheroes as they’re acquired, or else things could get problematic. “Well Timmy, you were the perfect distance from that lab explosion to gain superpowers, but I’m afraid that the legal team have advised against the standard stuff like flight, strength and laser eyes, so that just leaves you with the ability to turn your bones into jam.”

Actually, whilst it might be a little tricky to think of new abilities at this point, I still think it can be done. Even reskinning the old stuff goes a long way to giving a new sort of feel to a game, just by how it looks and how it affects enemies.

Say if you’re making a water-themed character, why not tweak the dodge function, so instead of him just rolling to one side like everybody else, it has him turn into water, so an attack passes harmlessly through him? That sort of thing can make a big difference. And swapping out generic energy blasts and fireballs for something else more memorable, like a cheese grater beam or a gun that shoots tigers, is the equivalent of a funky signature at the end of a letter. It might not be enough to truly change our opinion of the content, but we will appreciate the individuality of the experience. And superhero games at their best have always been individual, a new experience that really stands out when swinging swords or using firearms inevitably becomes tiring or mundane.

Basically, that’s the lifeblood of a super-sandbox. Originality. Excitement. Something to throw away all preconceptions and focus on the good time you’re about to have, as you take to the skyline and discover that you want powers that you had never even thought of before.

Think about it – who wouldn’t want to play a game where you’re bitten by a radioactive cactus, or exposed to the energy derived from a basket of beach towels? Everybody would be craning their necks to see what was happening. And I’m not saying that I’m planning a game in which you get the proportionate strength and speed of a Kookaburra. Or a game in which you realise that your power to vomit missiles comes from the fact that your father was a Harrier jet. I’m not confirming that at all. But I bet you want to play them. That’s the true power of the innovative super-sandbox, people want the experience, they want to feel super-human.

On an unrelated note, can anybody help me make a Kickstarter account?