INDIANA JONES AND THE EMPEROR’S TOMB REVIEW – “WORLD’S GREATEST HAT RETRIEVAL SIMULATOR”

You know, it’s games like this which remind me why I like my job, which I’m sure is an opening statement that’ll endear me to nobody. I know that getting paid to play games and write about them sounds about as gruelling as licking the back of your teeth, but anything can lose appeal given time and a sense of obligation. Getting hired to perform creative and passionate lovemaking with the finalists of a Miss America contest on a daily basis would probably be pretty sweet to begin with too, but after six months you’ll have an unavoidable sense of ennui that can only be matched in intensity by the third-degree friction burns on your genitals. Such is life.

But it’s little moments of delighted surprise like this one that help remind me that games are still supposed to be fun, which is easy to forget when you’re only thinking about publishing schedules and what jokes might put you in court for libel. And sure, there’s occasionally a cruel, vengeful glee that can come from writing poison at a game that wasted your brain cells, but that’s still dependent on you playing something crappy beforehand. Remember, you still have to get bitten by the dog before you can enjoy kicking it up the arse in return.

But this here is a really good game that I just want to rant about, partly because it has personal significance to me and partly because it’s pretty damn good. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb was a PS2 game from 2003 that actually manages to trump the first three Uncharted games in terms of quality. It might trump Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure as well, but I haven’t played that one yet, and I ain’t going to comment on the standards of games I haven’t played, not until IGN are happy to send me a monthly paycheck.

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Indy’s adventure for a lost Chinese gemstone goes relatively unremembered when compared to The Fate of Atlantis or The Infernal Machine.

See, I played The Emperor’s Tomb back when it came out, when I was just a nine-year old kid with a big love for Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. I had all the films on VHS, I had toys based around excavating worthless plastic trinkets from blocks of clay, and I even got my own bullwhip, which I was very dismayed to learn could NOT be used to wrap around protrusions like a makeshift grappling hook. But my love for all things Indy hung around, so when I saw a few days ago that IJATET was available on Good Old Games and for less money than the average pair of underpants, I double-checked that my threadbare Y-fronts were in no danger of turning into O-fronts during the next week and promptly snapped up this classic, curious to see if it still held up after nearly a decade and a half.

To go into more detail, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is an action-adventure game by LucasArts for the PS2, one that was basically trying take back everything that Lara Croft had co-opted. A world-trekking, swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, Nazi-punching, whip-cracking adventure, in which Indiana Jones is tasked by the Chinese government to find the “Heart of the Dragon,” a mythical black pearl from the Qin dynasty that has the same kind of ancient, vaguely nebulous magic that the Ark of the Covenant would approve of. Needless to say that the Third Reich have also got an interest in having a power level of over nine thousand, so now it’s a race against time as Indy must find the key that’ll open the tomb and allow him to take the pearl himself, either before either Hitler’s goons or a villainous Chinese Triad leader can get their hands on it.

On the surface it certainly sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, and that’s probably the greatest strength of The Emperor’s Tomb – it feels like we’re playing through a hypothetical fifth movie of the franchise, a film that just never made it to the silver screen.

Oh sorry, am I supposed to say it’s the hypothetical fourth movie? I forgot, it’s impossible to refer to this series without making some silly token reference to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being crap. Yeah, welcome to Nerd Culture 101, people. Do you also want me to mention how Aquaman has useless powers, which he doesn’t, or how “Vader” is German for father, which it isn’t?

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In combat every punch feels like it has real weight behind it, and the improvised, unplanned way fights tend to go make them feel wonderfully authentic.

But that’s boring to dwell on when there’s tasty, tasty violence to be discussed. One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that The Emperor’s Tomb is superior to anything Uncharted could throw at you is that the combat engine is far better than the cover-based tedium that Nathan Drake seems to believe passes as a genuine gunfight. Instead, there’s something wonderfully scrappy and brutal about the way the fighting works here. The world is full of objects that can be picked up and used to clobber your way out of a situation, from a sturdy table leg to a ceremonial spear, and the always-accessible whip allows you to yank the enemy’s weapon out of their own hands for you to pinch, a technique that never fails to be impishly satisfying. And if there’s nothing solid to hit the villains with, you could always just draw your revolver or settle it with your own two fists.

It really is a testament to what a bit of careful character animation can offer to an experience. Indy fights exactly like how he should – like the underdog, using every means possible to overcome whatever forces are stacked against him, and consequently the game is all too happy for you to punch enemies in the balls or kick them when they’re lying down. Another wonderful little detail is that your hat can be knocked off your head if you’re struck in the right way, and you have to manually retrieve it yourself if you don’t want to keep looking at Doctor Jones’ PS2-era Lego man hair. There’s no mechanical reason why you need to get it and you can go on without it just fine, but the trope of retrieving his Fedora after a dangerous escape or fight sequence is such a staple of the series that it’s wonderful to see it become an organic part of the world.

The whole game is careful to keep the movies’ jubilant tone throughout, right to the point where you could understandably accuse it of perhaps not being as creative as it could’ve been. Every level practically has an equivalent moment in the films that you can draw a direct link to, and not just because the game is doing the classic scene transition of drawing red lines on a sepia-tone atlas. You start the story off in a trap-filled jungle temple a la Raiders, then there’s a scene with a rain-soaked Nazi castle straight from The Last Crusade, followed swiftly by some more Raiders when Herr Jackboot brings us to a bustling market city in the desert, then we go stealing from the Temple of Doom for a skirmish in a Chinese city, before we finally bounce back to Raiders one more time for an assault on the secret island base in a Nazi uniform, and we’re not even in act three of the story yet.

I’ll also say that the voice acting is a little dubious. Late actor David Esch has the unenviably tricky task of trying to recreate Harrison Ford’s dry monotone, and I’ll confess that he did a good enough job to make me wonder at first whether it really might be Han Solo in the driver’s seat. But the big problem is that he can’t keep the tone convincing whenever he has to show genuine panic or surprise. Indy’s disinterested cry of “whoa” when a giant crocodile shows up is about as convincing as two children in a tall coat, and the other voice actors can only aspire to that level. The chap playing Von Beck (the one-eyed, blonde-haired, scar-faced, monologuing leader of the Nazis, totes serious) is clearly putting more ham in his performance than the average ploughman’s lunch, a fact made all the more startling by the knowledge that the fella has been in cultural landmarks like Frozen, 24, Lost, and one of my favourite animated shows, The Critic. Though considering he played a European stereotype in that show too, maybe it’s not too hard to see the connection.

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Indy’s adventure leads him from Ceylon, to Prague, then to Istanbul, Shanghai and a dozen other locales – and yet none of it feels especially new.

But I can’t stay pissy at the voice acting for too long, because I’m still riding the high that comes with hearing a faithful adaptation of the original John Williams Raiders’ March over the top of some daring action sequence. I’d leap out of cover, gunning down goons before bringing out the bullwhip and knocking back an enemy with a vicious sting of woven leather. Then before you could say “it belongs in a museum,” I’d snare Fritz’s back-up goon with a swing of said whip and yank him in close for a solid punch to the jaw, cutting off his yells of “schnell, schell, die amerikaner,” and all the while grinning as the theme music bombastically pays tribute. It’s so enthralling that you want to punch the air and just shout out the words “hell, yeah!

But those are moments for combat, and smacking around the Hitler Youth is only half the game, and the other half is puzzles, traps and platforming. And I’ll even give credit to some of the puzzle design, it does have clever elements involved – at least when it’s not cartoonishly easy to decipher. The early stages of the game really do treat you like an idiot, going into a cutscene whenever you enter a new location and having the camera carefully pan over to the solution before you even know that a puzzle is coming up in the first place. With retrospect I’m a little disappointed not see some equivalent of the third movie’s Grail Diary popping up to play around with (another thing that Uncharted and Tomb Raider pinched from the series), but instead we do have competent, though generally unremarkable puzzles that don’t stick with you for very long, connected by climbing around and the occasional secret item hidden behind a waterfall, because there is ALWAYS a secret item hidden behind a waterfall in video games.

I actually managed to beat The Emperor’s Tomb within a couple of days, and this surprised me, eventually coming across as both longer and shorter than I thought. Like I said, the game is choc-a-block-full of colourful locations and backdrops, taking every opportunity it can to yank us to a new location halfway across the globe, but I’ll confess that you’ve had all your A-Grade material once you get past the section at Nazi headquarters. That’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s still twenty-five percent of the campaign to go. It’s not bad, by any means, it’s just… Lesser.

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Any action-adventure game eventually give you a turret section, and The Emperor’s Tomb is no exception to that rule, including at least three moments where you get rooted to the floor and shoot at enemies who are foolish enough to come within a two mile radius.

Frankly, it’s hard to say why it loses steam after that point. Perhaps it’s because Indy gets a weird spinning blade weapon that makes combat less interesting than just slugging dudes. Perhaps it’s because the environments become more enclosed and claustrophobic after that, consequently losing all the wanderlust and majesty you’d hope for in a world-trekking game. Actually, it might just be that the checkpoint system and camera controls are both clearly in league with the Krauts and out to get you, and the last act of the game won’t let you forget it.

I’m not kidding here when I say that this might be the biggest failing of the game overall, something that takes The Emperor’s Tomb down from true greatness to just being really solid. I’d punch my way through a horde of Chinese ghost zombies, swing across a ravine full of hungry crocodiles, duck and weave between the jets of fire shooting out of the walls, at which point the camera would suddenly lurch awkwardly as I tried to do a precision jump between pillars, leaving me suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. One stream of profanity and a respawn screen later, and I’d find myself back at the entrance of the dungeon with the last fifteen minutes of progress lost to time.

But I suppose it is good for building tension and the desperate urge not to get killed. Trying to out-swim giant crocodiles has honestly never been so nerve-wracking when any of them could appear at any time to go all Lake Placid on your ass, coming with the terrifying knowledge that a couple of errors on your behalf could lose you progress equal to an episode of Frasier. And speaking of which, that Kraken in Istanbul can go and shove a trident up its bum (or whatever else it’s got instead), what with the way it constantly shoots jellyfish minions at you and scores an instant kill if you get in the same postcode as one of its tendrils, but you still need to get close to plant explosives that’ll turn him into calamari, yet the explosives always have more of a range on them than you’d think and can kill you weirdly easily and RAAAAAAAAAAAARRGH DAMN IT.

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The world design generally has good character and atmosphere to it, even if the technical quality wasn’t even impressive back in the mid-2000s.

The more I think about this game, the more I wonder why I like it so much. It certainly has things that are wrong with it – I haven’t even gone into the rail-shooter sequence on the rickshaw – but I think the errors only gall me so much because they distract from the core gameplay, which certainly kicks ass and does so in a series of attractive settings, all backed up by a rocking soundtrack. I guess if I was pushed for one more comment I’d admit that the graphics weren’t especially impressive, even back for 2003, but if you’re willing to shell out on a game that’s nearly fifteen years old then you’re probably not expecting something that’ll tax your computer hardware for that perfect photorealism.

But the other thing that I like about Indiana Jones is that the titular character is still pretty unique, even to this day. Yeah, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake stole the basic idea of looting artefacts for themselves, leaning harder on tiger-fighting and nineties snark respectively, but Indy was always something a bit different than that: a lovable grouch with understandable motives. He’s a little bit cynical and a little bit sceptical, rolling his eyes at every amateur who passes his way and that inevitably gets killed by their own ignorance. Yet at the same time he’s always filled with childish glee at every new discovery and piece of history that unfurls before him, exactly the kind of contradictory character you’d expect from a man who spends half his time in a University library and the other half trying to disable ancient Aztec home security systems.

It’s obvious that I’m going to finish by recommending this game, but I’ll also make an impassioned plea to whatever Disney-brand Overlords that now keep LucasArts as one of their many hoarded trophies, displayed on some mahogany plaque just before Marvel movies and the Muppets. You guys like money, right? Of course you do, that’s why you keep making live-action adaptions of your old movies that do the fashionable post-modern thing of pissing all over the originals. Well, if you want money, make a new Indiana Jones game, a really good one. Not an adaptation of the old films, we’ve seen those before and they already exist via the Lego games. No, make a bouncy, rollicking jamboree of an adventure that could fit anywhere in the original trilogy, where Indy has to punch villains, escape traps, grab treasure and make an exciting escape at the end of it all. The name brand will get you a whole heap of sales to begin with, and the formula does work on both a narrative and gameplay level.

Think about, is all I’m saying. Iron Man has to run out of marketable new suit designs eventually, right?


8/10

A legitimate lost treasure whose strengths have held up very well over time, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is a curious time capsule that pushes past its flaws by doing exactly what you’d want it to do – feel like an Indiana Jones film. Combat is punchy (pun not intended), puzzles are decent and hearing the whip-crack echo out over the Raider’s March is still a nostalgia trip to rival any globe-trotting adventurer.

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.

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.

DRAGONBALL XENOVERSE 2 REVIEW

Nobody was more surprised than me to find out that they liked Dragonball Xenoverse. Why would I like it? I don’t much care for anime, I flat-out dislike Dragonball, and fighting games were never much my bag either. No Street Fighter obsessive, nor weeaboo hugging his Android 18 body pillow to be found here, I’m afraid. I’m too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons to engage in such loser hobbies.

So when I realised that Xenoverse was a very solid combat game that really leant into the power fantasy of it all, I suddenly realised I was having a whale of a time. Yes, the story is fanservice nonsense that wouldn’t pass muster in a third-grade writing exam, but it doesn’t intrude on gameplay much and allows you to rocket around the sky kicking aliens without issue. God bless the skip-cutscene button, a function that served me even better than the pause menu.

Which left the player free to indulge in high-octane lunacy, as you fire various beams of energy at improbably resilient foes, who all fly around smacking each other like a civil war broke out on Krypton. And the game rewarding you with new fighting techniques and characters to play as means that it all feeds nicely into itself. Colour me excited for Xenoverse 2, then.

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Joelku’s back, bitches! And this time, his dress sense is worse than ever!

But the problem is that I did something before playing Xenoverse 2 that I suspect the developers were hoping I hadn’t done recently: I played Xenoverse 1. And this, as I would soon come to realise, was a major problem.

Because Bandai-Namco’s new anime odyssey isn’t really a sequel, it’s an upgrade. It’s not like buying a new phone, it’s more akin to updating the software, and the number of assets, mechanics, powers, ideas and locations that have been copy-pasted from the first Xenoverse to the second is pretty unimpressive. I wasn’t hoping for a complete overhaul of the system, but you’re more likely to come across old content than new content as you power through the campaign in “Dragonball Xenoverse 1.5.”

But I must say that there was a rather neat function whereby you can import your created character from the first game into the second, where he then becomes an NPC that features in the story. The former protagonist has now become a de facto legend and high-ranking member of the rather scrappy and slightly stupid Time Patrollers, the recurring organisation of weirdos who go around making sure that history doesn’t change too much in the wake of irresponsible ruffians like Doctor Who, the little fez-wearing bastard.

The above premise isn’t a terrible one, but it’s not handled particularly well and the story can’t quite figure out what it wants to be, other than a Dragonball Tribute Band. For one thing, it never becomes clear why changing history is such a bad thing, especially when you choose to do so at one point in the narrative and nothing bad happens as a result.

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Pew pew pew! Take that, Vegeta! How dare you try to overshadow the far-less interesting protagonist! How dare you go through an engaging character arc!

Not to mention that the undisciplined, clubhouse feel of the Time Patrollers is a genuine plot flaw that only becomes more notable as you progress through the story and see just how slapdash this whole thing seems to be. I practically expect to hear that old joke being shouted out:

“What are the patroller’s coordinates?”

“Sir, I’m afraid he’s uncoordinated.”

I can’t remember where that line is from (and that’s been driving me nuts for weeks), but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply to the Time Patrollers. A band of well-intentioned and overpowered mooks sit on a giant island floating somewhere outside of reality, with no real rules or even method to their madness. And all of these super-bozos are being led (rather frighteningly) by a cast of oddballs that include Hitler The Elderly Aubergine, Manic Pixie Dream God, and a mopey idiot with a large sword and out-of-season overcoat. Seriously, if I got a penny for every time that Trunks screws up over the course of the game, I could buy his mother’s company three times over. Ooh, look at me picking up knowledge of the world as I play. If I keep this up, dear reader, you have full permission to blow my head off.

‘Cause I ain’t here for story, partly because it’s the same plot as last time. Some ruffian is going through history and trying to change it by granting extra power to old villains, and you drop in with your create-a-character to show them what-for, ensuring that all the established canon remains canonical. Because god forbid we do anything daring, like play with the stories a bit and see what new material we could draw from them. Did everyone just forget how cool it was when Arkham City did that?

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Oh god, I HATE when this shit happens in anime and cartoons! Stop laughing, it’s so creepy!

But much like the first Xenoverse, it’s clearly a game made for fans, by fans. You want to help Goku beat up Frieza? Done. You want to read somebody’s power level? Just slap on a scouter. You want to perform every move and ability demonstrated in the show? They’re all waiting to be unlocked. You want to collect the Dragonballs and make a wish?

Ooh, hell yes! Can I ask for immortality?

Er, actually not. We had to remove that option to prevent the game from being broken, but look! You can get a giant radish as a cosmetic item instead, gifted to you by the mighty Shenron and his universal omnipotence! Hooray for magical root vegetables!

… Mister Critic, Why do you look so angry?

Beyond that, the mechanics are pretty similar to the first game. You fly around arenas performing combos on goons with a bunch of stats and superpowers backing you up, balancing ki and stamina meters as you do. And frankly, it all works well. It was fun before and it’s fun now, but the thing that Xenoverse realised early on, as mentioned, was that the best reward for killing goons is more ways to kill goons. Most missions give you a new move or technique when you beat them, and you can swap out the attacks you know for different ones, Pokémon style. And whilst most of the abilities available here are imported from the previous game, there’s enough additions to the roster to keep things somewhat fresh.

That being said, the combat does feel a bit… Stickier than before. There’s a few new forms of basic attack to play around with that makes things more organic, but the game as an odd habit of making your character stop moving after certain attacks, whereupon somebody covered in particle effects comes around and kicks your head in. And whereas before now, when punching an enemy across the map caused you to teleport cleanly after them, now the player characters fly in a locked route to pursue them as part of the attack animation, which means you get stuck on the geometry of the world really easily, flying into mountains or buildings that were uncooperative enough to be standing there.

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“Wow, this guy tripped and fell really hard.”

Oh, and there’s a few more problems that weren’t solved from the first game. Keeping secondary objectives as a secret until the player solves them makes less sense than a warm-hearted Tory, and the fact that certain items and skills are given to you randomly at the end of each challenge is a right pain in the bum. When I power through a mission and manage to reach a perfect score, only for the game to spin a roulette wheel and decide that I don’t deserve anything better than a participation award, that’s some serious crap that no game designer should’ve been happy to sign for. Especially when I know, deep down, that some other dope has muddled through with a piss-poor performance and still been given all the planet-busting super moves. Not cool, Xenoverse.

But let’s move on. One of the big new changes is the hubworld, which the advertising boasted as being seven times larger than the one in the last game. Is it wrong to admit that I don’t care about this? The hubworld is just a place to pick up missions, it doesn’t need to be bigger than a single room with a sign-up sheet pinned to the wall. And hell, the last game’s base of operations was too big already, so I don’t know what the developers thought they could achieve by doubling down on that.

This problem of size is alleviated by two solutions. The first is a little hoverboard that you can beetle around on for increased speed, and let’s be clear about this – that stupid machine sucks more arse than the average colonic. It controls badly, goes alternatively either too fast or too slow, is constantly overshooting because of momentum, and if you bump into something there’s a brief, unskippable animation where your character clutches his head and wonders about the choices he made in life. The amount of times I’d be scaling the long staircase up to where the story missions are kept, only to shoot off the end of them and come crashing back down to the ground level again… Yeah, to hell with that bloody Marty McFly contraption.

The form of hubworld movement is introduced about a third of the way into the game – just let the players use their flying ability like they do in combat. And because flying is fast, easy to control, allows you to scale heights without issue and just lets you go straight over any obstacles in your path, there is never a reason to get out the hoverboard again. One wonders why we couldn’t just fly from the beginning, and the only reason I can think of is that the developers wanted to annoy me. Perhaps there is a different explanation, but I can’t think of one.

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Wait, you think I need a haircut? But I kinda like this “Sonic The Hedgehog” look!

By the way, anybody signing up for online play might find themselves getting impatient as they stare at loading screens and empty lobbies. The final thing that got carried over from the first game was the occasional crash and poor server quality, where being kicked from your match halfway in was less of an exception and more the norm. Even as I was writing this, a notification popped up from the publishers telling me that trying to use the Dragonballs in a public server was pretty likely to freeze the game, and that I should refrain from doing so if I wanted the best experience. Maybe they could’ve told me that a couple of days earlier, when that exact thing happened to me. Low effort, must try harder, etc etc.

Oh, and one other thing: Remember how certain characters could teach you their trademark moves if you beat them up for a bit, and occasionally joined you in missions if you were playing badly? They’re back, and ‘ere you resent this game for having them spawn and despawn randomly like they did in the first one, this time when they appear somewhere they have the common decency to stay put. That’s definitely an improvement, but like the ability to fly between missions, cutting out some of the RNG was a decision that didn’t feel anything less than blindingly obvious. It would’ve been an embarrassment if they hadn’t done that.

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 is indeed better than its predecessor, but not by much. A couple of stumbling steps forward does not imply some great leap of evolution, nor does it warrant forty pounds from those who already own the previous one. If I wanted to pay money to go in circles I’d charter a party bus and load it with prostitutes as we drive around a roundabout, because I’d have a better time and certainly a fresher experience.

That being said, I did just admit that Xenoverse 2 is a superior form of Xenoverse 1, a game that I like. And I probably would recommend the sequel to anybody who doesn’t own the original, because it’s a fairly enjoyable experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do feel a little sour about all this. It’s another time where the Steam refund policy looks like it could use a change, because it took me longer than two hours to realise that I was playing with the first game in a slightly shinier dress, all because those first two hours are mostly cutscenes and tutorials.

Those of you who are unsure about buying it should probably wait for the price to drop. Those of you who loved the first installment are getting more of the same, so you’ll probably be happy. On the other hand, anybody who isn’t big on games like the Naruto Shippuden franchise isn’t likely to be very happy. Being an unappeasable critic, I haven’t been happy since 1998, but Dragonball Xenoverse 2 did occasionally prompt some stirring of emotion that might approximate to approval. If you ever wished you’d bought the original, shell out for this extended cut. If you weren’t won over by the previous entry, this isn’t going to change your mind.


 

6/10

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 picks up where the old game left off, and very decisively chooses to stay there, making very little progress and refusing to develop itself beyond a few fringe aspects to gameplay. Why should you buy this when the original is still there? I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I’ve thought of a reason.

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.

HAYDEE REVIEW – “BEEP BOOB”

Well. That was… Something.

In light of the controversy surrounding Haydee, it almost feels pointless to offer a critique of how it holds up on the level of gameplay. After all, everybody who’s played it or seen footage of the titular protagonist (and I choose that word very carefully) has already formed their opinion. Either you hate it for being sexist, you admire it for being subversive, or you love it disproportionately because a group you don’t like hates it. Or, contrarily, you hate it for the same reason. Or maybe you just have a fetish for women with buckets on their heads. Que sera, sera.

The point is that writing around the subject feels somewhat irrelevant, but that never stopped me before. So I’ll come right out and say it – a few gameplay ideas in Haydee are basically OK. Doesn’t matter if the main character is a sexist throwback or a powerful gender-icon when it comes to that angle, any more than Hideo Kojima’s sub-par writing skills change the fact that it’s fun to choke Russians in MGSV.

The game prides itself on insane difficulty, and that is certainly warranted. You meander around the sexbot research zone of Aperture Science Laboratories, and a number of things will contrive to kill you before you find the way out, or at least locate a loose, comfortable sweater. Evil robots, lethal drops, your own stupidity – given time, one of them will finish you off. At their best, these deaths usually feel like challenging but justifiable failures, in the manner of my lovely, lovely Dark Souls. My masochistic urge for a game that won’t put up with any nonsense is well-documented, and I was kinda hoping that Haydee would scratch that itch between sessions of Super Meat Boy.

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<THE AUTHOR DOES NOT FEEL BRAVE ENOUGH TO WRITE A COMMENT OF OBSERVATIONAL HUMOUR REGARDING THE ABOVE IMAGE. PLEASE SUPPLY YOUR OWN HUMOUR AS NECESSARY.>

But at their worst, the deaths feel cheap and frustrating. I’m happy to admit that when some long-limbed android rattles towards me and I put five bullets in the wall next to his head, the fact that he proceeds to kick my notably ample arse is only because I wasn’t good enough to stop him. But when his brother sidles up alongside me with no warning and caves in my head before I know he’s there, that feels cheaper than a pre-sucked penny sweet. And with save points being few and far between, getting mangled unexpectedly is almost as annoying here as it is in real life.

Which is to say nothing of the camera breathing down your neck the whole time, because god forbid you find yourself unable to examine Haydee’s body at any point in the game. I’m sure that’ll mitigate the rage of being tackled to the ground by HAL 9000’s big brother, especially when climbing up platforms is done in two stages – the first one of which ends with Haydee awkwardly bent over the surface, just so we can see right up her exhaust port and embarrass ourselves when somebody comes into the room.

But I realise I get ahead of myself, and must describe the core gameplay ‘ere I ramble off into total irrelevance. Well, it’s not easily summarised. I suppose I get flavours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with a tiny bit of ‘dat Dark Souls added in and some classic elements of old Metroidvania, all set in locations from Portal that were considered too boring to be included in the final product. You scrabble around a clean underground lab in third person, picking up every gun, medkit, keycard and bit of ammo you can find. You also climb and jump around from platform to platform (which as mentioned, manages to feel more uncomfortably pornographic than Debbie Does Dallas) in order to move on and explore non-essential areas for more equipment that’ll help later.

The story is far less comprehensive. Our hero, presumably named Haydee, is seen in an enormous science facility, where the only inhabitants appear to be aggressive robots and dead, mechanical blow-up dolls. There are some elements we can piece together, for Haydee herself is one of these buxom sexdroids, and the fact that her unmoving predecessors can be found up ahead, all damaged from some sort of attack or fall, implies that you are not the first to try and find your way out.

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But which one of us is really in a cage? Oh, it’s the robot. Seems pretty obvious now, but it’s quite hard to see with no eyes.

Or something like that, I guess. The game honestly didn’t seem to give a rotten fig about the possibility of narrative for the time I was playing it, and the broken iHookers only seem to exist to highlight which areas are fatal to fall into. The game clearly has its own opinion on what demands more attention than story – namely white panel walls, removable ventilation grates, and jiggle physics. Lots and lots of jiggle physics.

But there are things about the game I can appreciate. The minimal HUD feels nicely unobtrusive, and clearly somebody took inspiration from Dead Space and stuck Haydee’s health bar on the back of her helmet, making it an organic part of her design. Well, not organic, strictly speaking – oh, you know what I mean.

I also appreciate the fact that the game has some genuine ambition to present real challenge. Sure, I’m not too hot about the infrequent save points and the fact you have to hunt out the items needed to unlock them, but I always love a game that actually asks that the player wake up and pay attention in order to succeed. And though some deaths feel cheap and unwarranted, most of them do feel like my error and not the game’s.

And of course, I am completely on board with an emphasis on exploration, which demands the player make note of their surroundings and return to previous areas in order to be as well-equipped as possible.  Yeah, you can charge ahead and try to smother enemies with your ridiculously-sized chest, but you aren’t likely to succeed if you haven’t been snuffling around for ammunition like a Texas-born truffle hog. There’s also something rather effectively creepy about the robotic enemies, which silently move on you with clear purpose in mind, in a manner that can only be described as “advancing.” They even generate a few organic jump scares as they lurch into view, so I can’t say the game didn’t effect me.

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Day 3 in the Kardashian manufacturing facility…

That being said, the things I don’t like are more frequent, and start to get on my plums pretty quickly. The too-close, lecherous camera is one bugbear, and the unwieldy controls are another. I also don’t appreciate the fact that the plain, unremarkable environment gets old to look at very fast, and that there’s something rather unfinished and lazy about certain aspects of the game. Character animations are few and far between, the creators seem unwilling to give the player any information about what’s going on or how to play, and the lack of story feels less like a stylistic choice and more like nobody could be bothered to properly contextualise the events.

Is that everything? It is? Because I can’t think of anything else to address before we OH FINE I’LL TALK ABOUT IT.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this game sexist? Well, for a while I didn’t want to think so, partly because I was still kind of enjoying the gameplay and didn’t want to be seen to associate with something unseemly. After all, I have a paltry façade of a reputation to vaguely maintain. What could be more important than that?

At first I was mainly wondering if Haydee were some subtle, elaborate satire. Our protagonist is literally a set of sparsely-covered curves with no head, voice or obvious agency. Most notably, the heroine is sporting a blank plastic panel instead of a face, which in itself is so absurd as to imply self-aware, wink-wink acknowledgement. It comes across as ridiculous to consider, so defiantly backwards in tone that it makes me wonder how seriously this was all being taken. For god’s sake, the two difficulty modes are named “hardcore” and “softcore.” Could it be that all those sputtering Tumblrites were getting their piercings in a twist over nothing more than a simple satirical statement? It wouldn’t be the first time that people on the internet went insane for something that didn’t really matter either way.

But on reflection, I’m not convinced that Haydee is a satire. It’s actually not outrageous enough to come across that way, and with no story to tap into that parody potential, it feels more genuine than anything else. When I saw that the keycards all had pictures of topless women on them, I realised that this was exactly what it looked like to begin with – an unremarkable game with a few titillating elements added to draw people in. Whether that’s fine or not is up to the individual. You might call it harmless exploitation of the kind all entertainment has been engaging in since cavemen could first draw blood and nude stick figures on rocks. Or you might call it a regressive, demeaning fantasy that we should’ve gotten over around the same time. I can understand both, but it’s probably not empowering either way. But maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s happy to be stupid, sexy fun. Maybe it’s at too high an ethical price to be worth another depressing female archetype. Honestly, I’m starting to lose interest in both this subject and the game as a whole.

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It’s an easy joke, but somebody had to make it.

Which can act as my closing point. Haydee is a little too rough, a little too minimal and a little two unimpressive to be anything more than a time-waster, unable to capitalise or develop the good ideas that dwell within it. I couldn’t be bothered to play beyond a certain point, so maybe it picks up later – but I don’t care. I have limited recreation time in my life, and I ‘aint putting those valuable hours into watching Cave Johnson’s secret fetish fall into pits and perform revealing gymnastics routines. Maybe pick it up if you see it on sale, or find yourself attracted to mannequins. Otherwise, I can’t really recommend.


4/10

Haydee is a somewhat solid premise that isn’t refined enough to hold up on its own terms, so it throws in the headless Playbot as the heroine and hopes the bouncing jubblies will distract you from your growing boredom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

PONY ISLAND REVIEW – “MOUTH LASERS ARE NOT ENOUGH”

I have a soft spot for indie game development, as everybody who reads my work knows. I tend to be kinder in my reviews, more encouraging in my feedback, and more willing to part with my money when it comes to that final choice of buy/deny.

And that’s because indie game development is very important to the gaming community, perhaps more so than the big AAA stuff that gets the most attention. Gaming was founded on small projects made by people working out of their homes and universities, and even now the indie stuff feels like the most creatively liberated section, willing to take risks and make artistic statements – so good on them.

And because of that, I was approaching Pony Island with a certain amount of hope and expectation. After all, the information I picked up was certainly positive, and it all seemed to gel with the sort of things that I like. Classic arcade gaming with a subtle depth beneath it? Intriguing. Subversion of traditional visuals by infusing them with a darker edge? That can certainly work. Shooting Jesus in the face with a laser made of Matrix code?

… Well, now I’ve got to try it, right?

So Pony Island is a very short game that uses fourth-wall humour and underlying metacommentary in the main story, with a deceptively cheery old-style arcade game appearance presented as a façade over the whole thing. The façade falls away as we progress through the game, and as it becomes more clear that certain forces, both good and evil, are trying to manipulate you into performing actions that will have far greater consequences than achieving a new high score.

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BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAActually, this rather hurts my throat to do.

Now, I double-checked the timing on Pony Island’s release, and saw that it came out only three months after Toby Fox’s modern classic, Undertale. So I certainly won’t say that Pony Island was made out of some rushed attempt to leap onto an existing bandwagon, because most game development takes longer than three months. And like I said: it’s indie development. I want to be kind here.

But if it’s not guilty of being a copycat, it may be a victim of unfortunate timing. It certainly hits a lot of the same notes as Undertale. There’s a villain who seems exaggeratedly cute at first, there’s retro-gameplay altered in theme to meet modern sensibilities, excessive levels of games-talking-‘bout-games and even the same ending as Undertale, with one of the characters speaking directly to the audience and asking them not to player the game anymore.

An instruction I was all too happy to follow, as this is the question that was plaguing me throughout the two or three hours necessary to win: if Pony Island is a spiritual successor to Undertale, why do I love the latter whilst finding this new pretender rather insufferable?

It might be because the story feels a little bit too much like a gimmick, and doesn’t really know what to do with the good ideas it does have. To begin with, the game is way too excited about throwing away the initial illusion of cutesy “My Little Pony” visuals, which barely lasts five minutes before we get the darker stuff overriding it. We’re not even half an hour through before they’ve broken out the demonic pentagrams and creepy music. Oh look, a game about unicorns jumping over gates is actually a scam utilised by the Devil himself to gather souls. Man, that’s not something I’d expect Uncle D to be using. What? No, I’m not yawning. I’m, uh, silently gasping in terror. Yeah, let’s go with that.

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Lovey the Flower! No, hold on.

Which brings me to my second point – shouldn’t the antagonist be more threatening? Shouldn’t I feel more of a motivation to win? Undertale made me scared of a smiling yellow flower, and Reigns was clever enough to make a lovable dog seem unaccountably creepy. But the devil here just feels like an annoyance, something that throws a multitude of inconvenient (but by no means concerning) obstacles in your path. It’s like trying to write an essay, and every couple of hours somebody pops up and deletes a random sentence. Pretty weak stuff, I think you’ll agree. And with no real characterisation for either the player character or the NPCs, I never get the sense of anybody actually being in danger or grief. At one point the player is allegedly sent to sleep and trapped for three centuries, but so what? We see no consequences; we don’t become bothered by anything. We just sit back down and keep playing. Why is this supposed to concern me?

And the metanarrative is just as shallow, highlighting why such ideas can either turn out as gold or mould. Maybe I should stop belabouring the point, but Undertale was wise enough to initially keep its bigger ideas in the background as underlying subtext, and then had them emerge forward as the game progressed. So it starts off by drawing us in with characters, then doubles down by connecting the more philosophical stuff to the main plot later on. It also had much more interesting ideas than this game. What would the ability to save and repeatedly reload your life do to a moral mind? How would the ideas of grinding for experience or trying to reach total completion look in a real-world context?

Pony Island doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on that level, or even any real thoughts at all. There are moments where you step away from the fictional arcade machine you’re playing, and bits where you get on the developer’s nerves by cheating or playing unfinished levels, but there’s no deeper meaning to any of it. It’s just… There. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing – the ultimate nail in the coffin of the comedy game.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t parts I like. Or perhaps I should say part, singular. It’s just one scene, but it’s a very clever scene where you have to keep your eye trained on a certain entity to see how it changes, and the game tries everything it can to distract you, to make you look away. I won’t spoil what happens, but needless to say that the game really does pull out all stops and makes it near-impossible that first time you try, utilising the kind of tricks I’d never expect, yet somehow manages not to feel cheap in its tactics. There’s no deeper meaning behind it, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea in that scene isn’t clever and well-made, so due respect there.

Because it’s better than the gameplay, which was definitely getting to be a chore by the end. I suppose it’s in keeping with the joke that this is silly, shallow arcade gameplay, but let’s remember something – you’re still making me play a shallow arcade game. For lengthy periods of time. That might not have been the smartest move to perform on somebody who’s already losing patience with your creation to begin with.

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Don’t let me type stuff into video games. That never ends well.

There are two forms of core gameplay: the platforming sections and the hacking sections, and they both suck. The former is briefly entertaining until the developers run out of abilities to give you (two), having you jump over obstacles and blast enemies with your mouth laser in 2D side-scrolling perspective. But once it’s gotten those bits out the way, the game has nothing more to offer action-wise, except for the occasional alteration in who you fight. But considering Code Genie, Angry Flying Skull Thing and Lord Giant Boss Demon Monster Sr. all go down with a hearty dose of tonsil beams to the face, there’s no real change that comes across as significant to the player.

But it’s better than the hacking, which is represented by that age-old pipe-water game AGAIN. The game does its best to hide it by adding a heavy computer-code aesthetic, but it’s still steering an object around a grid by swapping out directed sections of a maze. Pony Island, we talked about this just a few days ago. I know Bioshock was an incredible game, but it’s now widely accepted that hacking the vending machines was the one element that sucked more cock than a hungry leech in a chicken coop. Out of all the Bioshock aspects you could’ve taken inspiration from, why that one? It’s like deciding that the best part of National Lampoon’s Vacation is that racist scene in the city slums.

I’m torn on to whether to recommend Pony Island or not. On one hand, it is incredibly cheap at only four pounds, and some people do really seem to like it. Not to mention that if I’m going to give my money to anybody, I do want it to be small-scale artists trying to succeed with creatively interesting ideas.

But on the other hand, I don’t like this game! Four pounds isn’t much, but paying any amount of cash for an unenjoyable experience is wrong. That’s why going to visit distant relatives for Christmas is so utterly depressing, and why you usually bring heavy amounts of booze to compensate. But I didn’t have any alcohol to hand with this one, and when my flatmate asked me to help her tidy the kitchen, I was only too pleased to escape.

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OH GOD NOT AGAIN

Though I did get to what seems like the canonical ending of Pony Island, the achievement list does suggest more gameplay and narrative hidden in there somewhere… But I don’t care. My work is officially over when the credits start rolling. If you want me to play more than that, you need to seduce me with some good material, and you can consider me as dry as a nun on this one. Maybe give it a try if you like your fourth-wall humour, or have just taken a great deal of drugs and need something entertaining in the background.


4/10

Pony Island has high ambitions, honourable intentions and even a few good ideas – but none of them ever amount to much. Generally inoffensive but nowhere near as original as it believes it is, the game becomes boring and eventually meanders into the frustrating.

BIOSHOCK REMASTERED REVIEW – “GRAPHICS CAN SINK, TOO”

So Irrational Games remastered the first two Bioshock titles as part of a big package deal, and those playing it on Steam promptly flipped their lid with regards to the actual quality of those remasterings. Which immediately goes to say something about player gratitude, considering that everybody who owned the original versions got the update for free. That’s like harassing the waitress for the quality of the free after-dinner mints, isn’t it?

But I was down for a return to Rapture either way, daddy-o. The original Bioshock was something of a critical darling upon release, for its atmospheric and interesting story set within a unique setting that managed to blend claustrophobic survival horror with… Oh, you know all this, don’t you? It’s Bioshock, it’s what it’s always been. Joe Schmoe’s plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean circa 1959, and he stumbles across a mysterious underwater city. A city which seems to be designed with the aesthetics from Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, yet based around the mentality and politics of Ayn Rand, only with a lot more monsters in diving suits than either of those ever expected. Can’t say anybody saw that coming.

Now I admit I got a bit nervous when I was waiting for it to download and saw that the Steam reviews were less cheerful than the waiting room of Dignitas, with people growling about frame rates and optimisation issues. But I seemed to avoid the worst of it, though not without a few hiccups along the way. Occasionally the game would stutter when I tried to go into the weapons menu or while hacking a vending machine, and the one crash I experienced lost me half an hour of difficult, late-game progress, but generally I found it functional and rarely noticed myself grumbling about it. So either the fanbase is completely unappeasable or I just got lucky – frankly, either seems possible.

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Hmm… This may upset somebody.

But what disappointed me about the remastering was that it doesn’t look very mastered. I suppose there have been some graphical improvements, but only to the extent where it seems to have evolved from the original 2007 quality to… I don’t know, 2010 maybe? Which certainly makes the allegations of technical shoddiness a little hard to defend. Sure, I reluctantly understand when something like the new Doom makes my poor laptop slow to a rattling chug. There’s more particles there than the average desert, and so things can’t help but get a bit strained.

But Bioshock isn’t anywhere near as detailed as that. I admit it’s a more worthwhile improvement than Fable Anniversary, something that looked so horrific that I had to back away from the screen hoping that the villagers wouldn’t savage me, but I won’t say the game looks like a 2016 release. And here I was, hoping for the riper, richer Rapture we saw in Burial At Sea. Something sleek, elegant, detailed, dripping with stylistic beauty. But no – it’s just Bioshock as before, but the textures are a bit less fuzzy. Hope you weren’t anticipating it to look any better than the game that came out three years ago, because you’re right out of luck.

But putting aside the tedious matter of technicals, the remastering provided the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves how Bioshock holds up after nine long years and with two sequels, both of which built on and developed the original concept. Arguably. Sort of. Maybe. If that’s your bag. Because I remembered the original being really good, but it had been a while since I played it, long before I’d started down the long, bloody path of professional nit-picking and dream-ruining.

And right away I found myself noticing a few things that haven’t aged with particular grace. The hacking mini-game is as tedious as ever, and also deserves a second bollocking for inspiring every game since to represent the complexities of computer code as a broken sewage system and some slowly-flowing blue sludge. And with the cutthroat difficulty of a game that demands you take every advantage offered, ignoring the benefits of hacking the drones and racist ammo dispensers is like declining to use the option to turn to the left. You can probably get through the game without it, but it’s going to take a lot longer and you’ll die a lot more in the process.

So hacking is a major part of the game that’s forced onto you, never sufficiently evolving and losing its initial lustre after ten minutes. I also found myself getting annoyed at my inability to make an efficient melee attack, which Bioshock Infinite and every other AAA game released since had taught me to take for granted. When some genetically-warped goon is quickly advancing on me with a rusty sickle and I’m running low on ammo and superjuice, what I need is the option to just smack him away like a little bitch, switching to a new gun or power whilst he briefly reattaches his jaw. But all I can do here is cycle through my various firearms like somebody picking out a flavour of Frappuccino, hoping against hope that I can spin my way to the melee option before the villain finishes pulling my guts out. Alternatively, I can pause the game entirely to pick the wrench out manually from the weapon menu, a choice that doesn’t come to mind naturally in a panicked state, manages to break the flow of gameplay and also runs the risk of making the whole thing crash again, as that was what did it the first time.

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And this DEFINITELY upsets somebody.

But let’s talk about that panicked state, because it was something I’d forgotten how good Bioshock was at doing – inducing absolute reactionary terror. Not in the style that one might experience in something like Alien: Isolation, but more along the lines of how it might feel to be lost in an airport car park with a scheduled flight in thirty minutes. It’s that tense, nerve-wracking feeling that every mistake is costing you, yet you’re also aware that you can’t stop to think about what you’re doing. You really don’t have the time for luxuries like rational thought.

Part of that is the fact that everything you do has some sort of notable price. Using your gun wastes ammo. Acquiring ammo uses up your cash. Using your plasmid powers drains Eve. Restoring health uses up your medkit supplies. Nothing is done for free, and all of these resources drain very quickly in a fight, meaning that any prude who’s above scrabbling in the rubbish for old bags of crisps and individual bullets will find themselves in deep trouble the next time a Big Daddy comes along. And with guns and plasmids specifically being inaccurate by design, losing your cool and spraying the wall above your target’s head with machine-gun fire is both common and deeply concerning.

Mind you, it does mean that an annoying little paradox is established within the mechanics. On the rare occasions I find myself weighed down with shotgun shells and bandages, it’s a lot easier to take the risk of exploring in order to find more loot and audio logs, meaning that in classic Rapture style, the rich start getting richer. But when I was clutching at the rags of my weakened health bar, trying to hold off the splicer hordes with half a pint of napalm and a single fistful of magic bees, it’s a lot harder to work up the courage to go marching into the unknown, and I’d usually just slink to the next mandatory objective, trying not to catch the eye of anybody in a bunny mask.

But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to go hunting regardless. Bioshock’s library of discarded diaries does make for some compelling world-building and character development, as we scoop up every recording made by an increasingly concerned and unstable population who didn’t have the luxury of Twitter to pour out their hearts onto. Without its expert writing, Bioshock would only be remembered as a decent survival game with a pretty backdrop, because it’s the rock-solid plot and world-building that holds everything together.

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I got this! I got this! I’m going to be fine! Wait, what’s that stomping sound?

So it was always a great shame when that rock-solid plot stepped out for a couple of hours to have some lunch, leaving us with the efforts of a rather surprised and unready intern. The game loses energy completely after a certain bathysphere explosion, trying to distract us with new characters and inconveniences that don’t really have anything to do with the story overall, until we finally push through to Ryan’s office and everything picks up again. Demented artist Sander Cohen is perhaps the low point of the game, missing out on either the subtle nuance and complexity of a character like Tenenbaum, but also failing to be really scary like Doctor Steinman was in the early chapters.

At their worst, the Bioshock cast just feels like third-rate Batman villains based around vague political ideologies, and everything in the shopping centre and farmer’s market certainly feels a lot shallower and less intellectual than the rest of the game. When Cohen shows up, warbling over the intercom and spinning spotlights everywhere like a drunk circus ringmaster, he always seems ten minutes from chortling “hello, I’m the living embodiment of a distorted philosophical concept pushed to its logical extreme with no thought for human compassion. How are you, darling?”

But when I said the shopping centre is the low point, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing. Every game ever made technically has a low point, and they do usually occur in the second act, so I won’t give Bioshock too much shit for that because it’s sandwiched between some gold star writing talent. The introduction was one of the most compelling introductions to a video game in history, to be outdone only by its second sequel six years later, so well done there. And when I said earlier that the game gets its mojo back when you finally confront Ryan, what I meant to say is that it gets enough mojo to make five decent games, and crams it all into one scene – now one of the most legendary moments in the medium of gaming.

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That’s a classy response to your city exploding. Here’s to your impeccably stylish and demented brain, Andrew Ryan.

Admittedly the ending is oddly brief and underwritten, going from “final blow landed in the disappointingly easy boss fight” to rolling the credits just two minutes later. Perhaps the writer was being lazy and Ken Levine locked him in his room until he finished, and two days later the poor chap just really wanted to use the bathroom and decided to rush the last bit. Whatever – it’s a small complaint, like a pockmark on a supermodel’s toe.

Bioshock isn’t escaping without a hearty recommendation, but I do think it might’ve been a little over-praised when it comes to the quality of the raw gameplay. It’s certainly not infallible, and little balancing issues and problems permeate the game to the point where they can’t be ignored. But that doesn’t change the fact that once I started playing, I didn’t stop for a while. And then I came back again. And again. And again. And again, until I had powered through the whole thing and was stood atop the needle-filled body of a certain semi-Irish scoundrel who was in need of a damn good thrashing. It’s a great game that has stood the test of time, so come and join me in Rapture, won’t you? No? Would you kindly reconsider?

Good. Then let’s go swimming.


 

9/10

A master chooses, a slave obeys, but only an idiot turns his nose up at one of the most absorbing worlds and stories that gaming history can provide. Whilst the remastering isn’t anywhere as near as mastered as we’d hoped, it is still Bioshock in heart and soul, and consequently it’ll be one of the best things released this year.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER HD REVIEW – “GREAT LESSON, SHAME NOBODY LEARNED FROM IT”

Wind Waker is an odd creature, isn’t it? After the comparatively serious one-two console punch of Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask, the Zelda franchise decided to lighten the tone somewhat, changing to a cel-shaded cartoon aesthetic and making Link a dopey young sprout of a kid who seemed much more real that his previous incarnations, even though he looked more like a drawing in the margins of a schoolbook than ever.

And though the critics liked what they saw, the western audience seemed a lot less happy. But then again this was the early 2000s, where gaming was still desperately trying to prove it was mature by adopting a thirteen year-old’s impression of the concept. No niceness, no fun, you hear me? All that stuff is for babies. Give me more WWII shooters, and another GTA game to back that up.

Thankfully it’s now generally accepted that Wind Waker was actually really good, hence the rerelease on the Wii U. And because somebody had a birthday recently (hint, it was me), I suddenly had a brand new console on which to try this HD remake. And good thing too, because Wind Waker is probably the best Zelda game I’ve played, full stop.

Part of why is that Link is much more human and characterised than any former version we’ve seen, except perhaps that god-awful TV Link with the goofy voice. This green-suited kid is still silent, but with an emotive face that portrays a variety of expressions, even in gameplay. And this time he’s not setting out to fulfil some ancient prophecy, oh no. Instead, a condor with a lot of kick-ass tattoos has stolen his little sister, and Link ain’t going to let that fly just because it’s on the endangered species list.

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“Hi, big brother! Sure is a great day for not getting kidnapped!”

And so he grabs a sword and hops in the nearest boat in order to save her. Because since the last game, Hyrule has had a slight problem with damp. Actually, let’s not mince words – it’s an archipelago now; a scattered mass of small islands with the roiling ocean between them, and so much sunken treasure that it’s a wonder the economy doesn’t collapse every time somebody goes crab fishing.

And everything spirals out from that point. Little Linkette’s kidnapping turns out to be a small part of a far larger web of events, in which we see all the traditional faces come back. Ganon, Tingle, the Deku Tree, Zelda… Actually, let’s talk about the Princess for a moment, with the mandatory spoiler warning thrown up for the next couple of paragraphs.

Because for a while it seemed like nobody had invited Zelda to the party, as she’s the only one who doesn’t get a mention for almost half the game. And the narrative role of determined-female-friend/sort-of love-interest-but-not-really was more than adequately fulfilled by Tetra, a young pirate captain who seemed far more likeable than Zelda had ever been. No traditionalist to be found in me – I was welcoming the change and the disappearance of a tedious character along with it.

Except that Tetra turns out to be Zelda herself, a literal reincarnation of that original character who has her royal persona re-emerge when you all find the sunken remains of Hyrule Castle. And like that, Tetra suddenly became a lot more boring. I don’t mean that I found her inherently dull afterwards, I mean it felt like the writer didn’t care anymore. The second Tetra reappears in that familiar pink dress with the Triforce on her hand, she barely had a word of appreciable dialogue until the very end, where she throws it off and goes back to piracy. I guess we know Zelda’s true gift now – not the ability to defeat Ganon, but the power to kill every scene she’s in.

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It’s the only game where the boat can sing sea-shanties for you.

Speaking of killing power, the combat has had a little bit of a tweak. Not a huge amount – few Nintendo properties are brave enough to go nuts enough to reinvent anything, even the bad ideas – but there’s a little bit more polish here. Link now has a counter-attack, where pressing A just before a goon hits you causes the Hero Of Hyrule to roll around and stab his foe in the butt. Good stuff, and the reintroduction of all the old items doesn’t hurt either. The targeting system is still a nuisance, as the game clearly has better ideas about what you should be aiming at, but on the whole it’s perfectly serviceable and usually fun.

Which is more than most people were saying about the sailing element when the game first hit stores over ten years ago. The idea is that the big open ocean of Hyrule lies before you, and you have to use the titular Wind Waker device to change the angle of the wind and use it to push the sails in your boat. But like many of Link’s toys in the past, this legendary item of the gods is unceremoniously dropped in your lap simply when the game decides it’s time for you to have it, and the same applies to most of the game’s weapons, including the all-important Light Arrows which show up in a box two rooms before the final boss fight.

But I’m getting distracted. The sailing is fundamentally a Good Idea, such a Good Idea that I felt the need to capitalise it, twice. Because the danger was always going to be that the ocean itself would be boring, and the act of travelling it would become boring by extension. Wind Waker skips that problem admirably, making this sandbox a hotspot of weird locales that makes it all too tempting to put off story quests and just head for the next island on the horizon – and there is ALWAYS another island on the horizon.

So the world feels big and ripe for exploration, and though I would’ve liked to have a few more hub towns (where all the most interesting stuff seems to happen), there is a simple joy in filling your map with every island the game has to offer. Sure, there’s a point where the actual act of steering the wind starts to become more of a chore, but when that happens Nintendo offer up a sail that changes the direction of the breezes automatically. And if you’re the kind of hollow-eyed, joyless gimboid who would rather be efficient than think about fun, then a) there’s a ton of e-sports competitions for you to enter, and b) Nintendo have provided an option for fast travelling across the map, where you don’t have to endure a single exciting adventure. Lucky you.

And of course there are puzzles, which feel intriguing in the sandbox setting but get overused in the dungeons – the usual case in Zelda games, quite frankly. But for what it’s worth, the puzzles here are generally taxing and fast-paced enough not to get dull, even when you’re having to bounce beams of light around as normal.

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Sadly, there is no fire hose/bug spray combo. Pretty design, though.

Oh, and what mention of Wind Waker would be complete without due praise given to the audiovisual qualities? Shirking angular polygons in favour of this game’s cel-shaded design was a decision routed in good common sense, with more than a little artistic elegance added into the mix. Whilst Link’s face does occasionally border on the terrifyingly inhuman when he has to express rage or frustration, the characters do generally look cute and the world does feel quaintly endearing, cribbing on a combination of Japanese and Polynesian influences, at least by my estimation. And when you hit the water with the wind in your sails, a triumphant orchestral soundtrack springs into life to give that real feeling of celebratory glee. Pretentiously phrased, but no less true because of it.

Look, I said it earlier: this is the best Zelda game going, at least by my experience. Everything about it seems to be excited and filled with life (bar the curiously bittersweet finale), and the places where it experiments are the places where it tends to shine, so you’re not likely to get this experience from a different entry in the series. If you have a Wii U, this should already be on your shelf. It’s earned its right as a classic.


9/10

The Wind Waker is a game about striving for greatness, and manages to match that sense of scale and importance whilst retaining focus on the most human versions of the characters we’ve seen. Give it a go, because it’s unlikely to be topped any time soon.

THE LITTLE CAR GAME THAT COULD

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.

Race

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.

Duo

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.