“It’s kill or be killed.”

I saw those words at the beginning of Undertale, and something about them won’t go away. Despite my best efforts to distract myself, that phrase stays in my head. It sticks there like a parasite, a little itch that I can’t quite scratch to satisfaction. It’s… Unnerving.

“It’s kill or be killed,” sneers a character in the opening scene, grinning cruelly at the truth of these words. His eyes are black voids, his mouth a crooked slash across his face like it was carved into him. I think he knows something I don’t. I think he’s hoping I’ll find out what it is.

“It’s kill or be killed.” Damn it, I really can’t shake them.

Can I prove him wrong?

Undertale is one of those games that’s been giving critics a lot of trouble by its sheer weirdness. It’s almost impossible to describe and still do it justice, but many feel the need to praise it anyway, because – well, because it’s amazing. But I’m going to try. I’m also going to do what I can to avoid spoilers, so this review might be weirdly coy in places, but I’ll do my best.

So, Undertale. It’s a game that came out in September after nearly three years of development, made almost solely by a chap named Toby Fox and funded by Kickstarter. It needed only five grand to make, but clearly some people saw potential in it because in classic crowdfunding style it made over ten times the amount.

And that’s interesting in itself, because with a perfunctory glance Undertale does look incredibly cheap. The graphics are nothing special, not a bit of it. They’re designed to look like they’d be on the NES, and though there’s the occasional bit of underwhelming design, every now and then they’ll surprise you – and sometimes they’ll surprise you a lot. This is the kind of graphic design where the placement of a single pixel can convey emotion, and Fox manages to utilise this to its best in some scenes. Oh, and there’s a boss fight where… Agh, I don’t want to spoil. Let’s keep it a surprise, yeah?

UT intro

And so it begins – the war between plain ponchos and customised ones.

And that’s kind of the theme of Undertale – it’s always surprising, never boring. Every scene can make you laugh, quiver, snarl, or even cry. Think about that. I’m a pretty emotionally-repressed guy, and this was making me well-up like a fifteen year-old watching a romance movie about terminally ill people. And I felt like that more than once! I had to go and lift some weights afterwards just to affirm my masculinity.

Because Undertale is Well Written. I’ve capitalised those words, because of how true they are. It’s amazing, it’s superb. From a rather innocuous and simplistic start – “humans live above ground, monsters live beneath ground, and you’ve fallen down from one to the other, oh no,” the game gets a thousand times deeper (no pun intended) than you could possibly imagine. This isn’t a set of rooms and caverns clipped together, this is a living, breathing world that shines on every level. It’s got history, personality, small-scale conflict, large-scale conflict, and a cast of characters who really felt like friends to me at the end.

In fact, Undertale has one thing that I haven’t seen this much of in a long time: HEART. And yes, that is kind of a joke to those who’ve played it, but I really do mean that. You can feel the love, the delight, and the spark of creativity that can’t be factory farmed; that can’t be produced by committee or on the whim of a contract. It’s shining with the personality and pride of its creator in a thousand ways, and really gives the impression that somebody wanted to make this.

UT Jester

This may need some context.

This is certainly one of those games that could only ever emerge from an indie company or a solo developer, because Undertale also takes the occasional potshot at mainstream gaming. They’re infrequent and subtle, but they always made me grin when I saw them. My favourite moment of this is the tutorial, where the person escorting you asks with complete seriousness if you’re ready to walk across an empty room, all by your own. Yes? Are you sure? Well, just be careful not to hurt yourself.

And you can’t get that kind of self-parody properly with AAA,  because the whole house of cards could come tumbling down if you point out where it’s badly put together. Can you imagine any blockbuster title like Call Of Duty or Rise Of The Tomb Raider having the balls to point and laugh at such a common attribute of gaming? I don’t think I can.

So what about gameplay? Well, it’s odd, but I like it. I’m reminded a little of Earthbound (though that might just be the visuals) mixed with the Mario and Luigi series, as it’s a narrative-driven turn-based RPG that gives you chance to avoid enemy attacks with reaction tests. These tests take the form of little bullet-hell sections, where you have to weave a tiny heart-shaped icon around the various objects that are thrown at it. Pull these sections off and you’ll never suffer a scratch. And good fucking luck in the later battles, buster.

But you don’t need to hurt enemies either, not if you don’t want to. You see, the fascinating thing about Undertale is that it’s possible to complete the whole game without killing anybody at all. Every attacker has an exploitable trick that allows you to persuade them to bugger off and leave you alone. For example, earlier today I was attacked by a small dog in a suit of armour (which is about as normal as enemies get in this game. I haven’t even got to the sentient airplane with complex romantic feelings yet).

UT librarby

“Hi, do you have Fifty Shades Of Grey?”

And I could’ve killed Rover, sure enough. In fact, killing enemies tends to be the easier option by far. But instead I studied him and thought – why should I? I’m sure we can settle this amicably.

And we did, playing a brief game of fetch before I gave him a friendly pat on the head and he went to sleep in my lap. The battle was over, and everybody was happy. Why bother slaughtering your foes when you could bring the olive branch of peace? It’s generally slower than a sword, but it weighs a lot less on your back.

By the way, the life/death choice isn’t just for show. The game’s story varies HUGELY depending on how murderous you’re feeling. And I can only speak for me, but I couldn’t muster a single iota of aggression, even against the most challenging bosses of all.

That’s weird. I didn’t want to hurt any of the members of the monster kingdom, yet I spend time in The Phantom Pain tormenting people for fun. How the hell did it manage that, considering my usual modus operandi in RPGs is to splatter anything that looks at me funny?

It’s probably the aforementioned characterisation. The cast of Undertale are a lovable band of misfits who care about each other deeply, and who’ve all been wounded by their past in some way or another. They’re not evil – they’ve just suffered. And you might be able to make them feel whole again, if you’re really willing to try.

I’m kind of surprised about this, actually. Normally this sort of “power of friendship” thing would make me roll my eyes and stick my fingers down my throat, but Undertale pulls it off by having a strong character focus and understanding when to dial “the feelz” back just enough to keep it in sub-text, rather than rubbing it in the player’s face.

This is actually a very important distinction. A good writer doesn’t have their characters standing around saying how much they love each other. No, he shows his audience how they interact – and we see that love for ourselves.

And that’s kind of infectious to be honest, because they interact with us too, and we grow to love them as much as anyone. My particular favourite was an early figure named Toriel, who has claimed a special place in my flinty heart alongside Dungeons And Dragons, Cadbury’s milk chocolate and the actress in the “Stacy’s Mum” music video – though for very different reasons than any of those.

UT View

Kiss him, you fool!

But what about flaws? Well, I’m pretty hard pressed to think of any major ones, though there are a few small wrinkles. Occasionally the graphics do seem a bit more “lazy NES visuals” than “clever NES visuals,” and there are one or two story beats I didn’t feel entirely on board with. And though boss fights are pretty brief when you’re going aggressive, the pacifist route tends to take a lot longer – perhaps too long in some cases.

But these are tiny flecks of dirt on a big, sparkling diamond, and there’s one glittery facet I haven’t even mentioned yet – the soundtrack.

Oh my god, the soundtrack. A score so diverse, so clever, so catchy and so fundamentally good I immediately went out and bought it afterwards, stuck it on my phone and had my head bobbing up and down like a pigeon for the rest of the day. The music varies between retro 8-bit tunes, dynamic upbeat guitar solos and powerful orchestral pieces – and that’s barely scratching the surface. There’s techno-synth pop, tinkling little music boxes and swinging jazz pieces that wouldn’t sound out of place on a montage in a kid’s cartoon. But it gels together well and certain melodies are repeated at the most poignant second possible, giving a lovely sense of deja vu.

Whilst Undertale does have a few very minor blemishes, I’m hard pressed to think of anything fundamentally wrong with it. Sure, some things it does better than others, but it doesn’t do anything badly, and most of the stuff it tries it manages to do incredibly well.

Perhaps the thing I’m most surprised about is that Undertale made me care – a lot. It made me feel emotional and sad, then made me feel joyful and happy. I think that’s the thing some don’t realise about people like me, people who are cynical to their core. We didn’t used to be like this and we hardly ever enjoy it. We’ve just… Adapted. We took on that attitude from certain experiences and we came to a conclusion early in our lives.

UT pap

And rightly so!

“It’s kill or be killed.”

But I’m not so sure about that mantra, not anymore. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get those words out of my head, because they’ve been something I’ve sometimes considered, sometimes believed in, or even delighted in when I was at my most jaded.

But that’s what Undertale made me realise – there’s no law that says it has to be that way. No, we enforce that law. We choose it. And we try to convince others that it’s the case because that way we won’t feel quite so awful for following it too. But, if we really try, we could always aspire to something better. It might be unlikely that we’ll ever manage it for real, but do you really think we should ask for anything less?

“It’s kill or be killed,” sneers a character in the opening scene, grinning cruelly at the truth of these words.

I think he knows something I don’t. And now I want to prove him wrong.



Unique, beautiful and artfully crafted in its every intricacy, Undertale is one of those games I will always hold with me. If you haven’t played it, go and do so right now. If you’ve tried it already, treat yourself to a replay.


So last time we looked at a trio of narrative nightmares and learned some important lessons. Namely the importance of self-awareness, the dangers of fruitless repetition and the knowledge that even a flawed character must have some redeeming features to be realistic, or even tolerable.

But today we’re looking at three more bozos who could’ve used some more rethinking, and we’re starting with one of the most famous characters in gaming – and one of the dorkiest.



Sure, people whine about Sonic’s comrades, most specifically Amy, but let’s think about this dispassionately for a moment and look at Sonic himself. Even before the horror show that was Sonic Boom, the little blue bugger never seemed anything other than cringingly embarrassing. In fact, nearly all of the attempts made to develop Sonic as a character have fallen flat, mainly because somebody at Sega decided a little while ago that Sonic is a product of the nineties and that should be reflected in every facet of his being.

But nothing from the nineties has aged well. And I’m from the nineties, so believe me, I would know.

As a result of this mistake we have a character who is just sort of fascinating in his sheer awfulness. I’ve never been a massive fan of the franchise as a whole, but Sonic The Hedgehog in particular has always rubbed me up the wrong way. Maybe it’s because he feels like the worst elements of a dated Saturday morning cartoon hero brought to life, with his cocky, arrogant swagger and constant “Dreamworks’ Face.” Maybe it’s the fact that the freakishly modern attitude and running shoes seems to clash weirdly with the storybook fantasy that the games are set in.

Sonic Boom

Or maybe it’s the voice, usually badly acted and inspired from the kind of person who wears a baseball cap backwards and uses the word “radical” every time he inhales. And though I don’t think Sonic has ever actually rapped to camera, at this point it feels like only a matter of time. It is possible to make a kid-friendly hero who doesn’t make me want to run screaming from the room. Even Mario, devoid of personality completely, is preferable to something this painfully outdated.

But there’s not much to be done here, not without burning it down and starting all over from scratch. And the opportunity for that was Sonic Boom, which of course failed beautifully.

And it didn’t fail because they changed the formula, mind you. The franchise has never stuck to one thing long enough to develop a formula, and as we’ve mentioned, everything from the older canon was kind of sickly and needed shaking up anyway.

No, it just kept all the problems of the originals and added a batch of new ones. The biggest problem is Sonic himself – and nothing will be fixed until that issue is sorted.



And on the opposite side of the coin, what happens when a series is all too happy to let you make fun of a character, swamping you with reasons to detest him?

Claptrap has been a staple of the Borderlands series since its inception, he’s the third NPC you meet in the whole story (besides Marcus and the flaky chick who managed to wangle enough money for FMV). He’s kept showing up constantly since then – in Borderlands 2 he was a major character, in The Pre-Sequel he was actually playable, and in Tales From The Borderlands he was an easter egg, available if you’d been hoarding money throughout the game, which came as something of a disappointment to people like me who had been doing so and were hoping for something better. The series has likable characters, but I couldn’t help but get irked by having to see this jackass show up yet again.

CLPTRPSome might claim that Claptrap has the same problem as Ben – namely that he’s an entity designed to be annoying, which is certainly true. The developers have admitted as much and it’s constantly brought up in the games. But I would say that Claptrap is a more obvious failure than Ben, as his purpose for being so aggravating is much clearer – Claptrap is designed to be so annoying, he becomes funny for it. And the problem is that he isn’t funny.

Gearbox were really playing with fire here, because there really were only two ways it could go. Either he managed to go right round the circle and make people laugh as intended, or he’d fall short and get real old, real fast. And boy, we know which one it was now.

And yet, they still keep trying. The battle to make Claptrap accepted by the public has been a losing struggle for years now. They tried everything, including making two DLC campaigns about him, and yet it still won’t take, not quite. Perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow is that Telltale made what I can’t help but think of as “what Claptrap should have been” – Gortys, the chirpy little robot who managed to blend childlike naiveté, excitable charm and a real sense of friendly altruism.

Whereas Claptrap is just an arse, through and through. He’s whiney, egocentric, boastful and lethally unamusing. And though this is pretty bad, he probably wouldn’t be so detested if he didn’t have such a permanent presence in all the games. Not only do Gearbox insist on making him a major figure, he refuses to keep quiet when he’s around, constantly bleating out self-deprecating “jokes” over the top of a gunfight or grunting out the tune of some dubstep garbage. Yes, he’s even a fan of the most unlikeable music going, and there’s no way to make him shut his Hyperion-brand hole.

The cure here is a pretty minimalist one – to minimise the bugger’s performance. I know they can’t drop him completely, as he IS the mascot of the series, but keep him out of our way as much as possible, OK? And please, Gearbox, really work hard to make those jokes click. You’ve tried humanising him and that didn’t really work, so I’d recommend that you keep pushing to do what you did before – get right back round the circle to make him funny again. And just in case, keep him in the background. That way it can never be much of a problem. Deal?



Did you know that the human brain has evolved in such a way that we are inherently programmed to find the sound of a baby crying unpleasant? Apparently we’ve developed this so that when there’s something wrong with our kid we feel a sense of urgency to do something about it, to make it better, healthier, less hungry or whatever.

Of course, that only ever applies when it’s a child we care about. When it’s somebody else’s baby wailing, we just give the parents an ugly look and ask the stewardess if we can change seats to somewhere else on the plane.

Yoshi’s Island was released for the SNES in 1995, and I’ll happily admit that it was a pretty good game that still holds up, which is probably why it’s been rereleased and copied in various forms such as “Yoshi’s Touch & Go,” “Yoshi’s Story,” “Yoshi’s Island DS,” “Yoshi’s New Island,” “Yoshi’s Woolly World” and we’ll probably see Yoshi’s Championship Manager if somebody doesn’t stop Nintendo soon. It seems that Mario’s mount has so many islands and worlds that he probably owns more real estate than Donald Trump.

YoshiBut speaking of Mario, that was always the glaring flaw in those games – the ‘ickle Baby Mario. See, there was never a health system in Yoshi’s Island, because you were basically acting as a substitute courier. Baby Mario needed to get to a boss fight before the shops closed and you were the bloke who had to carry him there through enemy-infested lands, like he was a wounded soldier on the beaches of Normandy.

Except that there’s a tit on a broom who’s constantly hanging around, waiting for the chance to pinch Baby M and sell him for adoption to wealthy celebrities. So when an enemy hurts you, Mario is knocked off your back and for some reason, instantly generates a bubble around himself that promptly carries him away into the horizon. That is to say, away from the only creature that’s helping him. Not only that, but up towards the clammy hands of the child-catcher above you!

And whilst Mario’s bubble-borne, he starts to make the most awful, screeching cry you can imagine. It’s like a woodpecker going at your eardrums, a high-pitched repetitive noise that sounds unnervingly like a siren. Meanwhile all sorts of bells start ringing, and everything goes to shit very quickly.

Because now the baby’s floating off, and you have a limited time to get him back before he gets stolen – which is usually about ten seconds. And Mario has the terrible habit of floating up just out of your reach, leading to some frustrating moments as you bounce fruitlessly beneath him, pawing at the air and never getting close enough. And besides, you had to lose a couple of seconds to turn down the volume because of that goddamn crying noise.

The true irony here is that you’re putting in the effort to retrieve a kid you’d have every reason to avoid. Baby Mario has no personality, no reason to like him and no benefit to gameplay. The only noise he makes is the screaming and other than that he’s just a pain in the arse.

This is a fairly easy one to remedy, though. A bit more lovability injected into the character would be necessary, as well as cutting out that wailing noise. I’d also drop the bubble, because the urge is to blame Baby Mario for his own predicament when it carries him off. Why not have enemies run off with him, so you’ve got to give chase and get your kid back? As it is right now, I’m kind of in two minds about doing so. Guess I’m no father of the year.


Hope you enjoyed this list – maybe you had some characters in mind that we missed? Feel free to mention them in the comments, and special mentions go to Navi (Ocarina Of Time), Eli (Metal Gear Solid V), Leon Bell (Dead Rising 2), Tingle (Majora’s Mask) and amateur bowling enthusiast Roman Bellic (GTA IV).


Whilst games in more recent years have started putting more effort into their narratives, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve all been successful in that endeavour. After all, the lifeblood of any story is its characters, but what does that mean when the characters are insufferable? Yes, we have boring, bland figures every year in video games, with personalities that would make the cast of a Transformers movie look like Shakespeare, but these tend to be forgotten swiftly and are usually content to stagnate in a corner somewhere.

But sometimes there are thorns. People whose every action is like sandpaper rubbing against the taste buds, and they stick with us for a long time. Some of them have become infamous for it.

So here we have a selection of particularly annoying entities from gaming history, and the lessons that should’ve been learnt from them. Maybe it’s wrong to cast the first stone, but truthfully I’d be delighted to see any of these pricks buried under a landslide.



Just Cause was never celebrated for its story, but quite frankly it didn’t need to be. When gameplay is as maniacally fun as this then I’m willing to let a silly plot slide, particularly if it intrudes very little on the game as a whole. And Just Cause 2 understood that.

But that doesn’t mean that it gets away with it entirely. Though none of Just Cause 2’s characters were hugely likeable or complex, they generally did whatever was needed of them and then were shunted off-screen to let the madcap action take place. Basically, they all had the role of signposts saying “THIS WAY FOR EXPLOSIONS.”

Except for one of them, whose every moment on screen made me want to hookshot him off a cliff, or tie him to a helicopter and fly it into the ocean. And yet he was the one person for whom the game would not allow it.2015-11-26_00008

So meet Tom Sheldon, an ostensible ally of the player who plays like an awful stereotype of the worst urges associated with Southern States America and right-wing republican idiocy. He’s constantly burbling about barbecue, getting other people to do work for him and contributing fuck-all to help out, bar a vague sense of slightly racist superiority to any other country. And of course he hates communists for no real reason besides blind patriotism, just to round it all off. Pair this shallow, unpleasant wanker with a voice that sounds like a piece of metal being torn in half and my tolerance wears thin real fast, as he shrieks another high-pitched “YEE-HAW” for the thirtieth time that day.

But how could you fix this character without destroying it completely? Well, I’d say what was needed for Sheldon was a great deal more awareness about the archetype they were playing with. He’s probably intended to be a parody, but this doesn’t count for anything if it’s just not funny (a theme we may be coming back to later). If you want an idiot, play him like one, commit to it. Don’t shuffle back and forth uncertainly, and at the very least make him worth something when it comes to the humour.

Sheldon comes across as unpleasant, but the game seems to think he’s cool – and he’s not. So what we have is somebody I don’t want to be near or even see getting praised, being fawned over by the narrative from dawn ‘til dusk, such as when it allows him to finish off a boss fight by crashing a chopper into the enemy. Rico spends the first half of Just Cause 2 actively trying to find him, then the second half working with him, which seemed somewhat at odds with what I wanted – aka, the hookshot-helicopter-hijack-hoorah, and to watch that ugly Hawaiian shirt and its pudgy contents plummeting into the sea.



Alright, so this one actually goes by many different names, but they’re really the same entity deep down. In water it’s called Tentacool, in deserts it’s Trapinch and in more recent games Bibarel has been a great source of frustration – but at their core, they’re all the same thing, the spirit of Zubat reborn over and over.

Here’s a basic rule of games and life in general – you can always make people angry by forcing them to expend effort, money, resources and time on something that doesn’t benefit them in anyway whatsoever. And Zubat is the personification of that feeling, mixed with a load of other little irks and niggles.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s how it works – Zubat is an incredibly common Pokemon that is frequently found in many of the game’s cave systems. It’s weak, ineffective and has a type disadvantage to pretty much anything. And yet it’s also one of the most horrific things that you have to endure, because caves are filled with Zubat. No sooner have you batted one out of the way then another drops from the darkness to get tangled in your hair. And Pokemon is nothing if not willing to drag its feet, so every one of these battles has to start with a protracted animation in which the two sides gear up, deploy Pokemon, give a squawking little battlecry and so on and so on and so on…

ZubatAnd then you have a choice. You could try to run (which is by no means guaranteed to work and uses up your turn, giving Zubat a chance to attack you for free) or fight it on its own terms, which uses up the limited pool of power points you’ll probably need for proper fights later on. You know, the fun fights that you want to be doing.

But, as you are probably thinking, what’s so bad about all this? Yes, it’s annoying, but who cares when you’ve just said the Zubat is no proper threat to the player?

It’s a little hard to explain it clearly, but the issue is that Zubat’s the kind of fighter that will go for all the below-the-belt punches. This winged pain knows a lot of bullshit attacks which aren’t dangerous per se, but will keep the fight going in the most unsatisfactory way possible. Zubat regains health, confuses your team, makes them flinch to miss turns and poisons them to cause damage even after the fight is over. And I hope you’ve got some kind of antidote, because otherwise that poison isn’t going away until it’s reduced your Pokemon to zero health. Hooray!

Basically, Zubat is all the most annoying moves and tactics combined into one creature, then repeated forever, until you finally break through or just throw away the Game Boy. Picking away at your health and morale until only a shell remains. Kind of appropriate for a creature that has the signature move “leech life.” And though the games allow you to buy an item that keeps wild Pokemon at bay, Zubat is usually at its worst in the early stages and that’s when these items tend to be proportionately very expensive. So the system is basically suggesting that you bribe it to keep the little sods off you for a while. Not cool, Game Freak.
What’s to be done about it? Well, let’s have no more enemies with all these horrible attacks up their sleeves. Mix them up, make them less annoying, and change what you’re likely to find inside caves. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on this with forgiveness. Maybe.



(Warning: this one requires a little bit of spoilers to talk about properly. If you haven’t played The Walking Dead: Season 1 yet, feel free to skip this.)

The problem with this part is that I suspect that supporting character Ben Paul might have been designed to be annoying at a basic level. But I still think my criticism stands, because the overall public response to Ben was – “OH GOD, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?”

I do respect the writing in The Walking Dead Season 1 greatly. In fact, let’s not split hairs – it’s the best interpretation of Robert Kirkman’s work, including the original material itself, which meandered on and on without ever really going anywhere, thus losing the tight focus and narrative elegance that Telltale’s story had.

And what I like most about the characters in The Walking Dead is that they’re all universally flawed and realistic. Clementine in particular is like a monument demonstrating how to portray children in fiction without getting on your nerves (another thing we’ll be coming back to), but this is the problem that I’m toying with – does a realistic perspective justify the addition of a character who is so unlikeable as to make the game less entertaining as a whole? Or, to put it more simply, can you justify sticking a real bellend in your game, one who’s so frustrating that he makes you want to stop playing completely?

Ben PaulThe reason why I suspect Ben was designed to annoy the player is because we’re constantly given chances to let him die. It’s a little ethical test put upon us by the writers to see if we’ll break and give him up to the hoard, but I actually don’t like this challenge. Ben is discovered by the group at the beginning of the second episode, and whilst to begin with he’s tolerable enough, that rapidly changes as he makes one frustrating mistake after another, many of which indirectly result in various deaths of his friends. He even abandons the infant Clementine to the hoard to save his own skin, which drove me nuts with outrage. Yes, it’s a plausible response for many people, but it made me aggravated to see him constantly making these errors and other people paying for them.

But what’s the lesson here? Isn’t this an intentional choice? Well, yes – but it’s a bad one in my opinion. A complex character certainly has flaws, but isn’t entirely composed of them. Ben has no real redeeming qualities, no reason why we should want him around, which in itself seems kind of implausible. He’s cowardly, stupid, throws a couple of tantrums, seems unwilling to admit to his bad decisions until he suddenly becomes a big moping mess and is genuinely detrimental to the group as a whole. And when he finally died (because of yet another thing that he fucked up) I felt only a vague sense of gratitude to the zombie that finished him off, marred somewhat by the fact that another, more interesting character got taken out with him. For fuck’s sake, Ben – you even ruined your own death for me.

Ben needed nobility, some purpose, something – even if it was just a sense of commitment to what he was doing. There’s few things more irritating than watching someone flip-flop back and forth, learning nothing and contributing even less. Even evil characters tend to have a backbone, or some strength of will that makes them a tinge more admirable. And when you rank below all the worst villains, something’s gone horribly wrong.


The second half of this list will be available soon, only at joelfraney.com.


Everybody says that 2014 was a poor year for video games, but the more stuff I try from it the more I find this hard to believe. Good or bad, at least it’ll have some mention in history. 2015 feels like it should have been renamed “The Year Of The Bland,” as most of the line-up has been functional but unimpressive titles getting added to major franchises like another prisoner being shackled to the end of a chain gang. Even the few good games like Fallout 4 and Tales From The Borderlands haven’t been revolutionary in any way, just well-made games that did exactly what we thought they’d do and nothing more.

The reason I currently feel endeared to 2014 is that I finally got round to playing Wolfenstein: The New Order, currently on Steam Sale for an impressive five pounds down from thirty-five, which is what prompted me to crack open my wallet, lean back to let the moths fly out, and shell over the cash for another venture into occupied Europe.

Wolfenstein is one of those series that I’d always known about but never really gotten into, but for those of you who are interested, it’s basically about Nazis building robots and monsters in the midst of World War II, whilst the allies work on kneecapping these little projects under the blanket of secrecy. If you go and watch the first scene of the Hellboy movie, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about – mysterious artefacts mixed with ever-advancing science, psychotic German officers in leather coats and personalised gasmasks, allusions to hidden societies and a group of down-to-earth, culturally-diverse soldiers who are here to kick Kraut arse and save the world at the same time.


Meet B.J. Blazkowicz. You can make your own by mixing the DNA of Captain America and a large bear.

However, this has sort of been changed in The New Order. The alternate history-ometer has been ramped up to eleven as the prologue depicts the wardrobe-shaped hero Captain William “B.J.” Blazkowicz as part of a last-chance effort to defeat the Nazi menace in 1946. Backed by the final scraps of the allied forces, Blazkowicz assaults the robot-protected castle of mad scientist General Deathshead and fails about as hard as a person can without spontaneously combusting. His team is scattered to the winds and B.J. (stop snickering) has a piece of metal lodged in his head by a cheeky explosion that leaves him dead to the world.

So far, so miserable, but after that he spends fourteen years drooling in a Polish asylum as the Nazis trample all over the world, sticking a flag in every country that submits and punishing any of those that take too long to comply, including nuking the USA and attacking England with a skyscraper-sized robot, presumably because we kept apologising in an annoying way. But Blazkowicz finally powers back into action just in time to escape a German death squad and joins the underdog resistance with his beautiful nurse by his side, meeting up with quite a few of his old friends as he does so. Along the way he’ll journey from Nazi prisons to the depths of the oceans and even to the moon itself, all the while fighting the automatons of General Deathshead and duel-wielding machine guns like a boss.

This might sound all very silly, but that’s kind of the point. Wolfenstein knows how stupid the core concept is, but boldly wears it like a coat of arms rather than constantly hedge its bets with little justifications and weedy apologies for every little thing. And honestly, I like that. World War II has been a withered, paper-skinned husk to game writers for years, all of whom have struggled to draw any new ideas from it, but Machine Games took that husk and filled it with life again by running liquid nonsense through its veins.


That face is all the reason we need to kill this guy.

Which isn’t to say it’s poorly written. As a matter of fact, The New Order has some of the strongest character writing I’ve seen from any game in a while, and proved that you can have a grizzled, warrior-soldier hero without sacrificing personality and depth, knowledge that would’ve helped when it came to creating entities like Solid Snake or Marcus Fenix. Blazkowicz comes across as tormented by what he’s seen, constantly having to remind himself of why he’s at war and not gruff as you’d expect, but quiet and saddened by his experiences. He seems more like a regular guy than anything else, and at one point confesses to running on a permanent level of repression, claiming that if he expressed his emotions properly, he’d never recover from the sheer enormity of them. Not to mention that when he commits certain acts of war in the game, he’s often visibly shocked or traumatised by what he sees – and that in itself is somewhat unusual. Upon causing some major act of violence, most FPS heroes would give it a stern glare before grumbling some one-liner and rappelling down to shoot anybody who had the poor judgement to try and defend themselves.

And the other characters are almost as complex as B.J. himself, making walking through the resistance HQ rewarding on its own terms, as you amass a little scrapbook of biographies. There’s the no-nonsense type that’s been inspired to fly aircraft after losing the use of her legs, the former German soldier who’s adopted a simple but kind-hearted giant, the elderly genius who believes that scientific enquiry is a form of worship and even an aspiring rock guitarist who might just seem a little familiar to those of you who notice the signs.

Mind you, he only appears if you make a certain choice, which is one of those things I’m not entirely on board with. During the prologue you have to pick which one of two allies get killed, and certain aspects of the story change depending on whether you’ve got the angry Scotsman or the nervous American backing you up. I understand why they implemented this, they want us to feel responsible and experience some of the weight of our actions, but I think this would have been more impactful if poor choices on the player’s behalf had led to them dying as a result, rather than stopping the story to make us drop Damocles’ Sword on one of the poor bastards. I’m all for player agency within games, but this isn’t an RPG. Wouldn’t it have been better to allow us to see all the content in one go? Whilst I’m sorry I missed it, I don’t feel the need to go back and immediately power through the campaign all over again, especially as I suspect not enough will have changed to make it worth the effort.

And that’s also a shame, because The New Order is surprisingly short, especially for a game that was being sold at standard retail price when it came out. What’s there is pretty damn good, but I had finished the main campaign in nine hours and there wasn’t anything left for me to do except replay the best missions and rewatch the sex scene a few dozen times. And though there’s a least three emotionally-charged moments that raise Wolfenstein from “good” to “excellent,” like all narrative based on surprise and shock, they can’t help but lose their impact over time and repeated viewing.
But what about the mechanics of it all? Wolfenstein is a game about visually spectacular set pieces, mixed around the core gunplay. One thing that delighted me from the get-go is that you can duel-wield any weapon, including lasers, shotguns and assault rifles, and there’s moments where the game mixes things up, such as scaling the side of a building on a grappling hook, shooting enemies with your free hand and swinging to avoid debris.


Would this be a bad time to mention my fear of heights?

It also helps that you’re not fighting dull shooting-gallery enemies. Nazis tend to eschew silly notions like cover and will often chase after you, making it all the easier to charge straight back and gun them down with exhilarating glee, and there’s robot dogs and armoured mechs that provide more of a challenge, strafing around them or looking for the fuel tank on their back to pop like a balloon.

But Wolfenstein is actually a surprisingly hard game, and something about me suspects it ended up harder than the developers intended. Health only regenerates a little bit, and medpacks and armour are often thinly spread or even just hard to distinguish among the environments. And whilst in cut scenes B.J. has the kind of physical endurance that would put a granite statue to shame, in gameplay it’s rather startling how fast you can get cut down by enemy fire. This is perhaps one of the reasons that The New Order lets you lean around cover to shoot people, rather than having to walk out fully and get your big chin blasted off.

Of course, the other reason you can peer around fences like a nozy neighbour is that there’s stealth, which is quite organically mixed in. Certain missions depend on it (such as sneaking through a prison camp with only a knife to defend yourself) but at time you’ll come across rooms full of enemies and you’re free to pick as many of them off as you like before you get spotted, using the holy trinity of stealth kills – the backstab, the silenced pistol and bizarrely powerful throwing knife from Call Of Duty, which as always can land in a man’s pinky finger and kill him instantly. Or maybe beneath the helmets they’re all Edwardian ladies who just faint at the sight of violence.

In hindsight I wonder if the stealth mechanics could have used a few more redrafts on the design document – it would have been nice to be able to distract enemies, for example – but it’s certainly not badly designed and what’s there works well enough that I’m happy to play stealthy when the option comes up.


Can you guess what happens next?

Finally, gameplay is shaken up every now and then with bizarre action vignettes, such as piloting a giant robot, fighting flying drones in a space suit on the surface of the moon and even shooting down zeppelins with AA guns, all of which last only a moment, but who cares? There’ll be another one that’s just as good in ten minutes. And though all of these spectacles are different, they’re all close enough to the core gameplay that it never feels schizophrenic or misplaced.

In short, Wolfenstein: The New Order has been a rather nice surprise. I was all ready to play yet another military shooter with delusions of grandeur and half-hearted character arcs, but The New Order is an inspiring blend of old-school shooters and modern FPS. Perhaps it realised that the way to have your cake and eat it too is to make it thick and flavourful enough to last – and you do that with layers. Layers of depth, layers of narrative, layers of gameplay, and a thick Nazi jam on top that any player is happy to go at with a big knife. I know I was.



Little nitpicks about length and a couple of rough-around-the-edges game mechanics aren’t enough to make me forget that The New Order has a great story, heartfelt characters and gameplay that’s all too willing to drop everything and have some genuine fun.



So here we are. In the final week before THAT game comes out and my life is officially put on hold, I was looking for something interesting to play to tide me over to that point. Ooh, check this out – here’s a game about robot soldiers, rogue AI, cybernetic powers and the dangers of surveillance and augmentation. I guess this is that new Deus Ex game that – what? It’s Call Of Duty?!

And this is what it’s come to. The series has utterly given up on realistic warfare, and I say good riddance. For ages it did nothing but fumble about with dull shooting and half-baked plots, trying to recapture the magic of the original Modern Warfare, and I guess Activision have decided they’re done trying. Fair enough, but the problem is that they clearly aren’t sure what it’s being swapped out for.


Ugh. Modern commuting, amirite?

I wouldn’t bother recounting the single player plot in detail, because there isn’t much detail to it. Needless to say it’s embarrassingly cheesy and plays like a bad action film, but I find I’m not too bothered by this, at least not as bothered as I have been before. I wasn’t expecting much from the start, and at least it’s not coming down too hard on other countries or ideologies, edging away from the standard “Team America” nonsense in favour of a more personal story. This time the villains are a mythical terrorist group with a legitimate grievance, a rogue CIA hit squad and a loopy artificial intelligence that wants to destroy the world. Or save the world, I’m still not sure. All that really stuck with me is that it likes crows and has about as much relation to real science as a unicorn does to a stableyard.

But the gameplay’s been changed, and in ways that are suggestive of some improvement. The big new thing is jet-thrusters stuck all over the player’s body, which you can use to do cool tricks like wall-running, double-jumping and some sort of mega-powerslide that plays as if Jack Black had a firework up his bottom. It makes the combat more reactive, but the trouble is that the older mechanics are fighting this. I feel like BLOPS III can’t decide whether it still wants to be cover-based shooting or not, because whilst you can do all this Rocketeer insanity, all that usually happens is that you get shot out of the air when you try it. Maybe it’ll be refined with the next instalment, but for the moment it’s a step in the right direction, though the journey has barely started.

There’s also a bunch of technological abilities you can use on various enemies such as hacking robot drones, exploding the batteries in ground troops and controlling vehicles remotely. It reminds me a little of Watch_Dogs, but whilst Aiden Pierce would wave his smartphone like he had a genie on speed-dial to make the bullshit hacking nonsense work, the Black Ops player does a generic hand thrust that seems to cover all bases. It reminds me of somebody in Star Wars trying to use the force, and it has roughly the same level of realism.

Ah, well. It’s still more fun than just holding down a trigger and some of these new gimmicks are pretty satisfying. My favourite was a melee attack that allowed you to pull the battery out of a robot’s chest like the priest in Temple Of Doom, before throwing it at whoever was left whereupon it would detonate like a grenade. Yes, yes, yes. More of this, please.


It feels weird to do this without having recently thrown a jar of pee at someone.

You might have noticed that I didn’t give the hero’s name a little while back. Well, I would’ve if I could, but the playable protagonist in BLOPS III is nameless. I suspect the emphasis was on player self-projection, a suspicion that grew when I saw that you could customise the character, but Call Of Duty is clearly new to this idea because, without meaning to be cruel, it’s amazingly bad at it. Customising the player is limited to gender options and few preset faces that all look identical anyway, so it’s essentially a bone thrown to those who like to make their character look like a very specific kind of psychotic redneck.

But what about multiplayer, considering that’s what most people were thinking of when the game was announced? Well again, it’s moving in the right direction, but still needs a lot of refinement. The thing that always pissed me off about Call Of Duty was that the player was wearing half a dozen layers of battle armour and military detritus, yet none of it seemed to offer any protection whatsoever, meaning that you’re both ten square metres of grizzled lunkhead and also cursed with the durability of a bath bomb – a large and fragile target.

And sure, this applies to everybody, but it means that too often combat comes down not to skill, reflexes or even the savvy planning of your character loadout, but to the pathetic question of who saw who first. Even the most elite player can’t do much when a level 6 grunt pops up behind him with a full magazine of ammo in his gun, and that annoys me like you wouldn’t believe, because I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do about it. Halo 3 (a game that I will forever hold up as one of the bastions of good multiplayer design) usually allowed you enough health and shields to give you time to react to an attacker (barring a few cheap power weapons). And that’s good, it allows for intense firefights and proper gunbattles, rather than reducing combat to a sequence of annoying ambushes that you could never be prepared for.


… I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking at.

But Black Ops III doesn’t seem to have realised that yet. The one major improvement is the increase in manoeuvrability, as all the jetpack abilities have carried over from the single player mode. So whilst you can do your best to evade gunfire, it’s only a small solution to a big problem and you’re still pretty easy to shoot as they haven’t done anything to make your character smaller.

I was also disappointed to see that the cyber-powers hadn’t made the transition from the campaign, but instead of those you can pick a sort of specialised ability thing that you pull out of your armoured trousers at certain points in the match, when the timer has clocked down far enough or you get enough kills to earn it.

These abilities vary hugely, but the problem is that they’re very poorly balanced. “Here’s a device that lets you see through walls for three seconds,” Black Ops III might gibber excitedly, “IS YOUR MIND BLOWN YET?”

“Sorry, did you say something?” We respond. “I was a little busy using this instant-kill area of effect attack that clears rooms like a sulphurous fart. Or using the flamethrower which destroys anybody in the nearest postcode.”

So it needs tweaking still, but I confess, I was having fun with it. Wall-running around like a scary Mirror’s Edge villain, kicking off into the air with my jetpack holding me aloft, then coming down guns blazing and bashing a guy’s head in with the butt of my rifle, that makes up for a lot of the shit that I had to endure to get there. In fact it more than makes up for it, including the poor server quality that kept spitting me out to the home screen like I was a fishbone in a bit of tuna.

And finally, what about Zombies? Frankly, it’s a mixed bag. There’s only one map so far, and it’s not very good, filled with extraneous, unexplained mechanics, annoying special enemies and an unintuitive level design that makes distinguishing the different areas annoyingly difficult. I also feel cross about the fact that it makes you leave all your kickass powers at the door. Yes, we know you’ve been enjoying this superb power fantasy, now let’s take away all your fun toys and give you a boring pistol to play with. Enjoy!


Is there something on my neck?

But I do like the aesthetic. From World War II Europe to modern Americana, the series has now picked up a strange mid-20th century Noir vibe, touched at the fringes by the influences of Lovecraft, in which you hunt around misty Gothamesque alleyways with strange occult symbols scrawled on the walls, as if Bugsy Malone had been invaded by Cthulhu. And the characters are nicely exaggerated and amusing, including a moustachioed magician played by none other than Jeff Goldblum, which was something of a surprise. So the whole place is dripping with atmosphere, but it still needs work mechanically.

And that’s kind of the point. My overall opinion of Black Ops III is that there are some good ideas here, but they feel rushed and like Treyarch weren’t trying to fulfil them as best they could. The single player is uninspired, the multiplayer mode is hampered by petty niggles and cheap deaths, and the zombie co-op needs some fine-tuning to bring it to its full potential.

And yet, I do want to go back to it, because there’s enough meat to hold all these things and carry them through to the positive side of the coin. And at the end of the day if a game makes me want to keep playing it even after the review is done, it’s got to be doing something right. Call it a resounding “just about good enough” and we’ll say no more about it. Deal?

Black Ops III is rough around the edges to an almost aggravating degree, but the exciting movement mechanics and suggestion of innovation to come does enough to make it worthwhile.


Took a while, didn’t it? Well, I said it would. That’s poor management for you.

Last time (well, before that Sunless Sea bit) we took a look at Valve’s Steam Store and the less-than-exemplary way in which it’s run, at the end of which I hinted at the big faux-pas that was made recently. Have you worked out which one it was? It wouldn’t surprise me if you have, partly because the title gave it away.

Yes, it’s the paid mods débâcle. Earlier this year, with little-to-no warning, Valve suddenly threw this concept at the wall to see if it stuck. Starting with the absolute personification of modified content that is Skyrim, modders could use the Steam Workshop to distribute and charge for their creations. A cut went to Valve and to whatever game you were modding for, and that was basically it.

Which was sort of the problem, that it didn’t seem to have been thought through any more than that. Mods are a big part of the gaming ecosystem, they’ve existed almost as long as video games themselves. Even Tetris was a soviet invention made by a man just fiddling about with computers to see what they were capable of. And when mods exploded in the late 90s and early 2000s with the proliferation of the internet, a basic system was worked out through trail and error – one based around user love and charity.

No, really. The mod community has always looked to me to be one of the healthiest and most admirable aspects of gaming culture. For years people worked on some of them and many were absolutely superb, whether it was fixing a broken game (like the PC port of Dark Souls), or tweaking something so well that it’s almost mandatory to use (like SkyUI), or even just adding hours of content like custom missions for Fallout or Shadowrun.


No more walkthroughs for me! Now I actually have a chance of completing that sodding quest!

And throughout most of this, money didn’t really come into it. Occasionally people altered something to the point where they thought they should charge cash, like Arma II getting morphed into the far more successful DayZ, but generally the only profit made was through donations to the creators by contented users. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked pretty well.

But then Valve suddenly walked in and unintentionally sabotaged the whole thing. If mods are an ecosystem, then the Paid Mods Scheme was the hunter that walked in and started shooting lions in the hope of selling the fur.

Not that you couldn’t see the logic that was being implemented, or even a few of the good intentions. If a person creates something amazing then that person probably deserves some sort of reward, we can all see that. A lot of the examples I’ve mentioned were made by people who have certainly earned some sort of thanks for what they’ve done, regardless of what their motivations were.

Except that the problem is that people don’t always create their own mods, or at least not all of them. A lot of them borrow from other people’s mods and that’s where the trouble arises.

For example, if Tom is making a Minecraft “Improved Physics” mod, then he might see Harry’s “Super Realistic Water” add-on and think, “Ooh, I’ll ‘alf-inch that, put it in my one.” I don’t know why he’s cockney, just run with it before I put a pimple Aristotle in your Chevy, you Bushy.

But then you introduce the fact that this mod is worth money and things get complicated, as they inevitably do when you put a price tag on things. How much money does Tom owe Harry? Harry’s mod was being offered for free, but now they have value, what changes there? Does Harry have the right to take his work back and stop Tom from using it at this point? How have things changed legally, is there an argument to be made for theft of intellectual property, or is this a free-use affair? Will Harry have to send the boys to Tom’s house with a couple of baseball bats and make him a raspberry if he’s not willing to hand over enough bees and honey to settle this?

Bloody hell, what’s with me and Cockney rhyming slang today?

Shadowrun Mods

So much content, so little time…

Actually, it was whilst I was looking up these ridiculous phrases that I couldn’t help but notice that the slang for a mug, a fool, is “Steam Tug.” So if somebody’s being foolish, you’d call him a “Steam.” Funny how these things turn out, isn’t it?

Within days of its existence the experiment had shown its results. Modders were pricing their work too highly or scamming users for cash, confusion arose as various creators tried to work out what was owed to them, and the public had suddenly become cynical and suspicious over something that had once been a forum of collaborative efforts and enthusiasm. Awareness of the whole cock-up was raised with parody mods like “realistic horse testicles for $99.99” and so on. Just because you’re being socially aware doesn’t mean that you have to be mature about it.

Valve cancelled the whole thing and returned all the money, trying their best to fix the mess that had been made, but it’s hard to see how it could’ve gone any differently. With no obvious warning or major testing of the process beforehand, they’d basically gone out and thrown a baby bird off a cliff to see if it could fly – and it really, really couldn’t.

But as mentioned, I see why it would make sense in theory. Though that being said, I do think there was a little much of the “dollar signs for eyes” syndrome going around – the cuts taken by Valve and the publishers seemed to me to be a little much, especially when there are websites for this sort of thing that the modders could just go to instead.

There’s been rumours lately that Valve would like to reimplement the paid mods system, albeit structured very differently, but I really don’t think they should. They’re messing with something that already works, that doesn’t need alteration. Users will pay for things that they like, they’ll fund things that make them happy. It’s why Patreon and Kickstarter have been as successful as they have, because we understand that effort deserves reward. And the mod community is fine and will continue to do fine, at least until somebody throws a spanner in the works. The way the game industry works, that shouldn’t be too long from now.


It’s been a while since I last saw the pirate ship, escaping it by vanishing into a thick cloud of fog which my trawler’s headlamp can’t even begin to penetrate. My engines exploded some time ago when I pushed them beyond breaking point in a moment of panic, and the resultant fire killed three members of the crew as it tore the hull to shreds. There’s talk of mutiny among the survivors, not helped by the decreasing rations and how far we are from land. Unless I can get them some shore leave or make a diplomatic home run, they’ll turn on me, and my body will be the first thing to go into the cook’s broth.

But I’m in uncharted water, and for all I know there’s no land for miles. Praying to whatever cold and ancient gods are listening, I take a trained zee-bat (a scrawny little rodent, but dangerous in hordes) and release it, hoping for some answer, hoping that it comes back with an olive branch, hoping it’ll find some sign of the civilisation we left long ago.

But what use is hope here?

Sunless Void

Is anybody out there? Are we even sure if we want that?

This is just one of the events that can plague you in Sunless Sea, perhaps the most original idea this year and set in the same universe as Failbetter Games’ previous title, Fallen London. Sunless Sea strikes me as what you’d get if you merged FTL: Faster Than Light and Darkest Dungeon, as it’s a rogue-like exploration game with an emphasis on psychological horror, resource management, unbelievable difficulty and a set of randomly generated oceans to explore.

Well, randomly generated to an extent. The islands are always the same, but they’re shuffled around like a deck of cards each time you die, which came as something of a shock as the game doesn’t tell you that this is happening. When Captain Joel Franey III was sunk by a giant crab and eaten, his intrepid son Joel Franey IV decided he’d use his dead father’s knowledge of shipping routes to make some mad bank early on. Only instead of finding what should’ve been a bustling market harbour, he ended up bobbing on a featureless section of ocean, a section of ocean containing a gang of bad-tempered eels who had woken up on the wrong side of the coral and were just waiting to kick the shit out of some poor passer-by.

But death’s a big part of it and not to be ignored. Every character you make has different stats based on what their job was and what they want from life, and if your previous captain had money and sense to write a will, then your upgraded ship can carry over to the next guy, albeit with a sizeable deduction in cash to pay the sodding lawyer’s fees.

It’ll take a while to get to the point where you have anything worth leaving to your ancestor, though. Perhaps the most glaring flaw in Sunless Sea is the incrementally slow progress of… Well, everything. All the missions have about a billion stages to them, money comes slowly (if it comes at all) and even the basic act of movement is like watching a slug drag itself across a blue linoleum floor. To make matters worse, if half of your crew is killed then your ship starts moving at half the maximum speed, and considering you weren’t exactly going like lightning before, this just makes it torturous.

I assume that this mechanic was implemented to make you extra protective of your loyal sailors, but dangerous events can come out of nowhere and often take a bunch of able-handed men down into the briny blue. At one point I got jumped by cannibal pirates when I was exploring a tropical island, and my only real option was to fight back, which went less than superbly. Five of my men died then and there, leaving me alone with the ship’s cat, a navigator who would’ve made Iago look trustworthy and some useless bumblefuck who probably couldn’t pick his nose without poking his eyes. It took almost ten minutes of slug-sailing to get back to the one port where I could load up with Redshirts again, whereupon one of them immediately went bonkers and started beating the rest to death. Maybe she was disappointed by the rations, I don’t know, but it was hard not to feel irked by the whole thing.

Frozen sea

“And tell the lookout to stop singing “Let It Go!” I warned him three times and it’s starting to effect morale.”

But I suppose it adds to the incredible atmosphere, because it’s in that department that Sunless Sea shines, paradoxically enough. I didn’t make that early comparison to Darkest Dungeon and FTL lightly, as it’s not just sandwiched between the two when it comes to mechanics, it seems to occupy the chronological midpoint between future and fantasy – a highly fictionalised version of the industrial revolution.

Slap-bang in the middle of the Her Majesty’s British Empire, the mighty jewel of London is pulled beneath the earth, into a subterranean chasm that stretches on for hundreds of miles colloquially referred to as “The ‘Neath.” There are already weird creatures living here though, including dangerous gods, mercantile devils, mysterious families and colonies of bandaged undead. And far out, beneath and beyond the waters of the enormous ocean that occupies most of this cavern-covered land, worse things are lurking, hungrily waiting for the unsuspecting fools who explore the waves to release them from their aquatic prisons…

If all this sounds really fucking cool, that’s because it is, reading like somebody took Alan Moore’s “League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and had Cthulhu stamp it through to the earth’s core. A captivating blend of bleak gothic steampunk, swashbuckling old-time adventure and Lovecraftian horror watching from the fringes whilst breathing through its nose, but it all gels together excellently without seeming schizophrenic and becomes something really special for it.

Well, except for one embarrassingly out-of-place mission that has you brokering a peace between talking rats and guinea pigs. Yeah, it’s as silly and childish as it sounds. Considering that I’d just been trying to talk my men down from suicide and had been constantly avoiding unknowable horrors up to that point, coming up on a rejected screenplay for Stuart Little was about as tonally off-putting as arriving in the land of the Teletubbies. Not that it was poorly written, but it didn’t have a place in a game where you have an option that allows you to eat each other.

Another flaw that strikes Sunless Sea was also made fairly evident by that mission sequence – the incredibly frequent text dumps. As a student of Literature it’s probably wrong of me to say this, but there is such a thing as too much reading. In certain quests you can show up at a new location, all bent on danger and derring-do, only for a large book to be thrown bodily at your face and told you can’t have fun until you’ve done your homework. I’m sorry, I thought we were supposed to be having a chilling, thrilling adventure on the high seas, but you seem intent on making me read War And Peace. What happened to show-don’t-tell? I found myself skimming these enormous chunks of text before too long, what with so much of it being flowery prose. Again, it’s not badly written, there’s just too much of it in too densely-packed quantities. FTL remembered to keep its written stuff in short, punchy statements, and knew to let the visuals do a great deal of the talking.

Sunless gloom

Well, that’s cheery.

And there’s no reason why the same can’t happen here. The whole of The ‘Neath and its perilous “Unterzee,” they’re both realised in staggeringly gorgeous detail with beautifully rendered images. The people are pictorially charismatic, reminding me of Dishonored with their exaggerated features and a style that verges on cartoonish without ever becoming comic. The overhead images don’t lose any beauty for their being seen through a bird’s-eye-view, as you pass frosted fortresses, beautiful mansions, blood-splattered cathedrals, the forges of Hell and a hundred other captivating landscapes. They’re not just well-designed, they’re gorgeous in their portrayal and endlessly inventive. And whilst I don’t know enough about art to say whether a lot of these locations were hand painted or not, they certainly look good enough to give that impression and it comes down the same thing for the viewer. Add that to the haunting musical score, and you almost feel ready to start humming some mournful sea-shanty along with your despairing sailors. Well, what’s left of them.

But I realise now that I haven’t really talked about Sunless Sea’s mechanics in detail, and that’s because there isn’t really a huge amount to discuss, as it’s pretty minimal. Gameplay takes two forms, either pootling around in the water firing projectiles at bad guys (which you’d be wise to do as a last resort, as you’re generally pretty weedy) or sorting through text boxes looking for the best way to manage your money, resources and ever decreasing morale.

Yum yum

Get the lemon and mayonnaise, boys! If we survive, we eat well tonight!

And as you meander through the wordy stuff on land, you’ll frequently come across options that are closed to you, at which point you piss off to find whatever metaphorical key opens that metaphorical lock, in classic adventure-game style. So if Johnny Bignose wants a new set of handkerchiefs to replace his old ones, you’ve got to go out and find a set before he’ll give you the Sacred Cross Of Saint Kleenex, or whatever it is you need from him. And whilst this can be a little problematic with the labyrinthine map, they do tend to give you a general direction to go in. And even if they don’t, you could always go and do another mission instead and see if you come across those precious sneeze-rags along the way. After all, the world is your oyster. Well, maybe not an oyster. Perhaps one of those giant clams that grabs your leg and holds you underwater until you drown.

Sunless Sea could still use a bit of work, especially mechanically, but it’s genuinely gorgeous when it comes to the trademark sense of wonder and dread. You’ll always want to see what lies a little bit beyond the horizon, and a little bit further and further still, and then the world will suck you in before you know what’s happened. It should also get your attention if you like games that are happy to punish you for every little mistake; the calling card of the rogue-likes as well as don’t-take-no-nonsense titles like Dark Souls, Hotline Miami and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

If you want something to do this weekend, lose yourself in Sunless Sea. Lose your money, your way, your crew, your mind and your life. Lose everything you have to the vast evil of the ‘Neath. It’ll all be worth it.

Though it suffers from an agonising lack of haste and a general lack of imagination in the mechanics, there’s very few video game worlds that are so deep, so creative, so atmospheric and dripping with personality.


Today I’m going to suck air through my teeth, make little whimpering noises at the back of my throat, and do something that goes against every urge in my body: I’m going to criticise Valve. That company that manages to be both successful and profound in their work, that balances originality and classic elements within their games, that has redefined major genres like the first-person shooter, the puzzle game and the online MOBA. I’m going to look them straight in the eye, summon my strength and say “come on, buck up.”

Brrrr. I feel slightly dirty writing that.

But I’m not criticising their games today, I’m talking about something very different: their infamous Steam store. As the most popular method of downloading games that there is, Steam is something of a must-have for anybody who owns a PC and uses it for anything more entertaining than Minesweeper.

And there’s a lot to like about Steam, I won’t deny that. It wouldn’t be as big as it is without being good at what it does, and it’s not hard to see why people flock to it. It’s got a good user interface, a huge library of games, regularly holds sales that allow you to buy them at low prices and incorporates interesting extras like mod workshops and a community market. It’s got more pros than a Vegas brothel, but like a brothel you’d be wise not to approach those in a management position. You’re also terrifyingly prone to viruses, being financially scammed, witnessing offers from those who are worryingly inexperienced, and just being disappointed with your purchases in general. But anyway, what did YOU do last weekend?

The thing is, Valve seems to enjoy the “hands-off” approach, tweaking the Steam formula occasionally before sinking back into the shadows to see what happens, and this is a problem when you’re running a system where a hell of a lot of money changes hands. You can’t set up a system this complex, nuanced, popular and open to manipulation, and then just ignore the whole thing.

Valve history

I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…

Because this can lead to some serious issues. There’s been many cases of misrepresented games on Steam, releases that lied about their content in order to get people spending. And whilst that’s neither Steam’s fault, nor a problem that plagues it exclusively, in most other cases the host platform gets involved and takes it off the marketplace. After all, these incidents effect Steam’s reputation too, especially when they’re on there for a while.

And boy, the incidents are really starting to pile up. Valve appears to have no interest in quality control, allowing anything onto Steam and only removing it when enough of a fuss is kicked up. There have been games which publishers lied about in their marketing (Aliens: Colonial Marines), games that were basically unplayable at launch (Batman: Arkham Knight) and games that were using asset packs and other people’s content without permission (take your bloody pick on that one).

And in all these cases, Valve didn’t do a thing. They sat back and went “not my problem.”

Isn’t it? For god’s sake, at one point somebody was distributing malware and computer viruses through your system, claiming it was a demo and sitting back to watch people’s hard drives melt. Not only that, but it was using someone else’s game as a trojan horse to hide it, so it’s both cyber-vandalism and a copyright scam.

And Valve stepped in, eventually, but it took a while and the damn thing never should have been up there in the first place. There needs to be a vetting process where they can see what’s valid and what isn’t, before the consumer has to find out the hard way. If you’re asking us to put our faith in your store, you need to have faith in it yourself and make it safer to use, or at least start cutting out those games that don’t deserve to be up there.

Steam Error

There’s also the occasional technical glitch. Or that Starbucks router was touched by the finger of god, either one.

And what about Early Access? For those of you who don’t know, the Steam Early Access program is another of those ideas that sounded fine, at least before people abused the shit out of it and reduced it to the embarrassing mess it is now. Developers can upload basic alpha models of their games in order to raise support for them, and those who buy these prototypes will have them updated for free when they’re finally finished, funding the developers in the meantime.

The problem is that the costs of this method can often outweigh the benefits. Whilst there have been success stories like Darkest Dungeon and Speedrunners, both interesting and innovative concepts that broke their respective molds to a certain degree, there’s also quite a lot of… Well, flotsam and jetsam.

Early Access games sell themselves on promises, sometimes charging the player the price of a full game (or more) and claiming that it will all be justified in about a year when it’s finally evolved to what it should be. The idea is that the creator can use those initial funds to finish crafting it, but that’s often not the case. Some games remain in a sub-standard limbo, never escaping the cocoon of mediocrity or even mending the broken butterfly wings of non-functionality. Other games might take a surprising direction and turn into final products that the players might not like, but were deceived about with the early claims.

The danger is that people use Early Access as an excuse to get away with games that are essentially unfinished. And whilst in some cases (like the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon) you’ve essentially been given the full game but with some minor balance tweaks and additional content waiting in the wings, other times these things are nigh-unplayable and likely to stay that way for a very long time, maybe indefinitely. We’re not talking weeks, we’re talking months or even years before you might get the final version of Nippletweak Simulator 2015 or whatever, and that’s without knowing if it’ll have the features you were hoping for, like climate control and a full range of clamp and tassle customisations.

The only real upswing that Steam has had recently was the introduction of refunds, and that’s not really a thing they should be too highly praised for. All that happened was that a highly profitable retail agency allowed a basic right to their customers, a right that’s existed everywhere else for decades. For my two cents, I’m still not hugely satisfied with the rules it currently uses for reclaiming your money, but it’s a step in the right direction and better than nothing, which is what we had before.

Though even the new refund system isn’t being managed properly – I happen to know that people started downloading tons of games as an experiment, playing them for as long as possible then requesting their money back before they reached the limit. Once again, Valve didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong and allowed this to happen. Wah, wah.

Oh for fuck's sake

OK, this isn’t funny anymore.

I suspect it’s just easier in the long run to stay out of the public eye and not do anything to raise attention. It’s cheaper, simpler and harder to pinpoint. After all, a person who does nothing can’t be condemned for their actions, because they haven’t made any.

Except that’s not really true. Inaction is a choice on its own, and it’s starting to look like Valve don’t care about what Steam is becoming – the dumping ground, the video game landfill. Where you can’t find one good indie game without having to drag yourself through a hundred shit ones, where you can’t trust the sarcastic review scores, the associated descriptions, even the games themselves, for fear that you’re being deceived in some way. Rules aren’t any good if nobody’s enforcing them.

There is a second half to this piece of writing, one concerning the most interesting controversy that Steam had this year, but I’m sorry to tell you that this article is actually in Early Access, so you’ll have to wait until next time. If you’re lucky. Or maybe I’ll be reviewing something instead, you just don’t know. Welcome to the joys of Early Access and poor management. I can’t even be bothered to pay the internet bill, so it’s fairly likely that this will – CONNECTION LOST.


Microtransactions are never acceptable outside of a free game. No no no, don’t fight it. You don’t have a leg to stand on. Not now, not any more. That ship has sailed, and come back filled with spiders, used needles, avocados, exercise bikes, all sorts of nasty things. And now we need to sink that ship before it turns on us and those that fed it, and also before this meandering, mixed metaphor makes itself any more messy and muddled. Capiche? No, me neither, so we’ll take it from the top.

Like so many things in the games industry, this is one of those concepts that should be fine, at least in theory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a free game having little elements for which a person can pay. Not only can it work, it has worked in the past. Games like Loadout, Fallout: Shelter or Team Fortress 2, they all offer full game experiences that can be enhanced by putting in a little cash for the developer’s benefit. That’s OK, that’s fine. A small donation to the creator that benefits both him and you, I can boogie down with that, that’s groovy, cool beans, super fresh and so on.

That said, there are limits. Angry Birds 2, Dungeon Keeper Mobile, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, The Simpsons: Tapped Out, they’re some examples of games that took it too far. Not only did they desecrate the legacy of their franchises in order to try and make a quick buck, the model they used was insulting. Essentially, they handed out free software which did bugger all, and in order to “progress” you had to start renting gameplay with real money.

You didn’t get a whole game, because then it would be a demo, and considerably more reasonable as a concept. No, when you shelled out your earnings you basically got to play for about five minutes more, before the whole thing yawned and went back to sleep. Sorry, you can either come back tomorrow or wave a bunch of fives under my nose to wake me up, like I’m a hooker with a gut full of sleeping pills.

Simpsons tapped out town

Come for the gameplay, stay for the outrageous attempts to rob you!

Come on, people. It’s not hard to find that line between reasonably-priced extras and obnoxious paywalls, and I can’t help but think that the more player-friendly option is the best one, even on a financial level.

Why? Because nobody played Dungeon Keeper Mobile and All The Bravest for long. They were so aggressive in their need for cash that people got bored with them fast. Whereas all the games I mentioned positively are doing fine, in some cases they’ve flourished! Fallout: Shelter has, in the few months since E3, made enough money to actually fund a Bethesda-sponsored nuclear apocalypse.

But all the purchases in that game are still for minor things, they’re just little lotteries that give you a random selection of loot and resources. These lotteries aren’t even limited to paying customers, you can get them by completing in-game challenges and you don’t have to pay a bean. But people did buy them, because the game was fun and they felt invested. What do you know? People who like a product will pay for it even if they don’t have to, that’s the power of customer respect.

But here’s the big question – do microtransactions have a place in priced games? Dead Space 3, Mortal Kombat X, GTA V, they all have them, but the key is determining the difference between regular DLC and a microtransaction. That said, there is a very obvious clincher for me – permanence.

When I download, say, “Tiny Tina’s Assault On Dragon Keep” for Borderlands 2, I’m definitely getting DLC. That content will always be available from that point, it will never run out or deplete, there’s no ticking time bomb programmed into it that will force me to buy it again.

But microtransactions aren’t like that, because they usually have a built-in limit. They’re most often something that can be burnt up or used only once, like the jewels in Pokemon Shuffle or the easy fatalities in Mortal Kombat X. Once you’ve bought them and used them, there’s no way to get them back, you can only buy more, and this annoys me like the dickens. In most cases they’re simply ways to reduce challenge, which cheapens the experience and basically puts the player in a position where you can pay the fucking game to play itself!

Mortal Kombat cold balls

In Raiden’s fatality, he just snaps his fingers and has a butler beat you to death with a wad of money.

The issue with usable resources in any game is the regularity with which they appear, and you know that in a game where you can pay to get more of them they’re going to come up slowly. The developers want you to get impatient enough to fetch your credit card, and tease you with incrementally slow progress to hammer home the necessity.

Not that this happens only in the paid games, it happens in the free ones too, but there’s a kind of understanding there. We know that there’s a psychological struggle to balance out the fact that the game is free, that we’re going to get pestered for money every now and then to cover the costs of production. If it’s too craven and desperate it can be a turn off, but in small amounts we’re willing to put up with it.

But it’s more than a little aggravating in a fully-priced game, not least because the games are so often structured to force you towards them. I found GTA Online to be a fairly nasty example of this, as it reduced the rate at which you earned in-game currency to an absolute crawl, all the time taunting you with amazing items that only the most committed, dead-eyed maniac would be able to earn the cash for.

Or, you could skip all that and hand over forty bucks, at which point Rockstar will plop a sack of digital dough in your lap and say “well done for playing the game your way!” Meanwhile, all the others who are desperately capping people for pennies in the next street over don’t have a chance, when Richie Rich can just drive up in a golden tank, or call in his personal chauffeur to drop off a harrier jet to obliterate them with.

Loadout suggestive pose

I’m not going to make any jokes here. It would be too easy.

That’s what bugs me most, the unavoidable nature of these things. It’s not good saying you can ignore these microtransactions, like some reporters have claimed, because so often now the games are created around them. “Oh, it gives you options, it allows you to progress at your rate.” No, it doesn’t! The creators push them as hard as they can, they penalise those who deny them and keep trying to inconvenience players who want to do without. That inconvenience wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t put it there, they’ve driven a spike into your horse’s leg and told you that you can hire them to remove it – for ten minutes at a time.

So microtransactions cheapen the art they’re built into, anger savvy players whilst scamming the less experienced, and twist their host games so that they always lead back to that paywall. DLC is fine (in theory at least, you can still get badly made or poorly priced DLC), and microtransactions are a justifiable evil in a free game if they’re kept in the background, but there isn’t an excuse any more for putting them in expensive, AAA games. Or indie games. Or any games. Or anything ever. Basically, fuck off.


Whilst I’m always annoyed when I come in on the tail end of a trend, I do think it’s given me a healthy amount of emotional distance in this case. The only other Metal Gear game I played before this one was Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which actually managed the Sisyphean task of having a plot that was stupider than the title.

But this is apparently one of the things people like about Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear franchise: the inherent weirdness of it all. I can definitely say that this aspect has carried over into the newest installment of the franchise (and most likely last installment, now that Konami is trying to see how many shotguns it can fit in its mouth), The Phantom Pain.

It suddenly struck me just how absurd the plot was when I tried to recount the prologue chapter to a friend, only to look back on what I’d been saying and realise that it wouldn’t have looked out of place scrawled in crayon on a padded cell wall. The whole game plays like a bad 80’s action film being adapted for anime, and the tone wobbles to an alarming degree. I’ll say it now, a story that features an intro sequence with militarised death squads gunning down unarmed civilians and has a scene where a man is tortured by having his leg bent the wrong way? That is not the same story that should contain hidden fart jokes, shameless attempts at eroticism and cute puppy sidekicks in quirky costumes. It comes across as vaguely psychotic, quite frankly, and it’s all played way too straight to be anything other than intended to be taken at face value.

Let’s not deceive ourselves, this game doesn’t have hidden layers that we can’t see. It’s not a devastatingly ironic take on the absurdity of AAA video game writing. No, Kojima is just bonkers and it shows when he picks up a pen.

MGSV Lion king

I think Snake’s been watching the Lion King once too often.

These last few paragraphs have probably put me on the kill lists of the thousands of Kojima fans who would rather burn their Japanese love pillows than hear one word against his ridiculous dialogue, but remember, what seems normal to the locals always seems baffling to outsiders. Yes, Hideo Kojima deserves some respect for basically being one of the first people to try to get really complex storytelling into video games, but whilst the idea was a superb one, his execution has always left a lot to be desired. It’s like the works of Suda 51, only not satirical and self-aware in the least.

So let’s study the story. In Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Of The Opera, you play as a legendary mercenary named David with a series of codenames, affiliates and missions that he stole from unsuccessful male porn stars, including Solid Snake, Liquid Snake, Naked Snake, Big Boss, Snake Eater, and possibly Susan if I can just get the paparazzi shots to prove it. This week he’s clearly discovered S&M, because now he’s going under the moniker of “Punished Snake,” and all that kinky foreplay has taken its mark, because his mug is covered in scars and cuts that would put somebody with their head in a blender to shame.

At the end of the previous game, Ground Zeroes, Snake was blown up by an evil villain named Skull Face, who is named this because his face is a skull. Guess Kojima was worried that his legendary subtlety might be too cryptic for the audience, so just to confirm that this twat is the bad guy, he gave him a cartoon bank robber’s mask, put him in a funereal black suit and stuck him in charge of an evil organisation named Cipher. It’s a bit like if a rejected James Bond script was being adapted for kid’s TV, but with the kids employed as the writers.

MGSV Batman

“Ooh, Let’s do that bit from the Dark Knight movie! Come on, it’ll be hilarious!”

So Skull Face (presumably the father of the Majora’s Mask antagonist) has an army of soldiers, robots, superzombies and giant mech-suits, which he uses to generally bother people and be a nuisance. He also monologues at Snake from time to time, who always politely sits and watches, instead of doing the smart thing which would be putting so much ammunition inside him that the bullets could be melted down to make a life-size statue of the bastard.

Meanwhile, Snake has been in a coma for nine years, until his surgery comes under attack from a clown kid in a gas mask and a man made of stitches and fire. They hassle him for a while, until he’s saved by the incredible Bandaged Man and his all-too visible backside. Then these new BFFs crawl around for a bit, until your new mummy chum runs over the human torch with an ambulance and Snake escapes, before being saved by a cowboy from a sudden attack by a falling blue whale and a fiery flying unicorn. The cowboy then brings him to an oil rig before they stick a robot arm on him and polish the horn in his head. No, I’m really being serious, and that’s just the first level.

Snake must now use what little is left to rebuild his life in the form of a mercenary organisation known as the Diamond Dogs, which incidentally sounds like a particularly camp pet salon. They set up their base of operations on the aforementioned oil rig and use their resources to make the best private army possible, and that’s where the gameplay, which until now has been snoozing in the back seat of the car, suddenly jolts awake and is allowed to drive.

And it’s good gameplay, very good gameplay, which does more than enough to balance out the embarrassingly awful story, much like Revengeance before it. But unlike Revengeance, which was all about hacking enemies into pieces with your sword, The Phantom Pain is a free-roam game with an emphasis on stealth, reconnaissance and nicely organic methods, kind of what you’d get if you merged Red Dead Redemption, XCOM and Far Cry 3. You horse around the desert before coming up on a stronghold and use whatever methods you like to take out the Soviets inside. Then you use the rewards (including the terrified soldiers and wildlife you fired into orbit) to revamp your base and equipment to be more prepared for the next mission.

Yes, this is where the story about giant robots, superzombies and clown kids gets weird, because Kojima has discovered the Fulton Recovery System, or at least some magical version described to him by a six year old. If you come across a lose object or living creature, you can strap a balloon to their chest which rockets them into the sky, where they are apparently picked up by your mates and brought home, at least if they haven’t been taken out by a commercial jet along the way.

MGSV Human Torch

“Sniff… I can kill a man by looking at him and survive a missile to the chest… And yet, I cannot love…”

Despite the silliness of it all this is actually a very good mechanic, because it gives you an incentive not to use lethal methods. If you get a reading that the commanding officer in a stronghold can break a man’s neck with his nipples, and you decide you’d like him and his nipples to join the Diamond Dogs, you can knock him out and have him recovered from thirty thousand feet, hanging beneath a hot air balloon and trying not to wet himself. Then he’s brought back to the lonesome, inescapable oil rig, whereupon your allies presumably hit him with sticks until all that pesky patriotism and loyalty to his country has worn off to the point where he’s willing to sell his killing skills to the highest bidder. What heroes we are!

All joking aside, this is a very good concept and I’m glad it’s in there, but there are mechanics that I don’t feel so overjoyed about. There are always a hundred ways to deal with a problem, but I only really felt like using a couple of them, because they’re what I’m used to and usually much more effective than the others. MGSV keeps insisting I could snipe enemies from a distance or run in guns blazing, use my attack dog or the robot legs that you get after a while, but why do those things when they’re all noisy, lethal and you can’t get items or recover loot and enemies? I found that just throwing distractions and choking people out when they looked around worked fine, and I always had the tranquilliser gun for when things got crazy and I needed to drop somebody. It’s all a bit flabby and could have used a bit of streamlining.

The base management is good though, albeit with a terrible GUI that makes navigation a chore, but the two systems support each other well enough that neither one feels unimportant and it all escalates at a good rate, meaning that you don’t usually feel overpowered.

In fact, it’s hard not to feel invested after a while. Whilst the beat-by-beat plot points are batshit, the overall theme of building a private army by attaining resources, earning a name for yourself, kidnapping experts, making shrewd business choices and working out strategies isn’t a bad premise and the game handles it well. I was feeling pretty proud of everything I’d make for myself, from the barracks stuffed full of cheery soldiers, to the world-class R&D lab who had something new every time I came back from a mission, to the overflowing coffers and the mighty matrix of facilities I’d built with my own ingenuity.

Which is why it felt utterly, gut-wrenchingly awful that after twenty hours of solid work, the game crashed and corrupted my save, forcing me to start from square one and endure the rubbish prologue level once again. After making a noise not dissimilar to a jaguar being fed through a combine harvester, as well as eating one of my pillows in abject frustration, I managed to calm myself to the point where the police felt they could leave me alone without issue. Konami strikes again with their relentless commitment to perfection, it seems, and I’ve seen enough posts online to know I’m not the only one it’s happened to.

It also wasn’t the first glitch I’d experienced in the game, though it was definitely the worst. At one point my horse managed to somehow run me over whilst I was riding it, a prisoner I was trying to rescue decided to fall through the map in order to escape for good, and one enemy walked so close that his gun clipped through Snake’s head and yet somehow failed to notice the eyepatched man crouched nearby.

MGSV Character

Once again, I try to make my face in a character creation program, and once again I end up with something that is depressingly more attractive than I am.

Now that I mention it, the AI is pretty shit in general. Enemies will respond normally to sounds and sights, but once you’re spotted all they do is move in on the place you were. After you’ve slipped away they bumble around angrily like they’re bees in a hive that’s been nudged too hard, and then go right back to guard duty, regardless of how many of their men have either been launched into the stratosphere or lie bleeding nearby.

But there’s positives to the game, technically speaking. It’s nicely optimised, though I always think that’s kind of a hollow point to make. It’s basically saying that it functions as advertised, but for what it’s worth, it ran very well on my laptop on the highest settings, something that few games manage.

And that’s good, because a great deal of the game is pictorial atmosphere. Whether it’s the Afghanistan scrubland or the jungles of Africa, the environments have good scope and I found myself stopping often to admire the scenery, at least once I’d cleared it of Russians and had all the sheep airlifted out of it. The one exception is the water effects, which are about five years behind by my estimate, but that’s a small quibble and a sign that there’s not much else to say.

Except there is something else to say. I wasn’t sure if I was going to mention this, because the Metal Gear franchise has famously always featured ridiculously oversexualised women to the point where it’s like saying that hot chocolate tastes good, or stab wounds are problematic. It’s such a given that you might as well not bother. But what irked me about this one was something that Kojima said in the lead-up to The Phantom Pain, showing what a bit of context can add to a discussion.

See, there’s this girl in the game called Quiet. She’s a mute sniper who works for Skull Face until you fight her, beat her, and bring her back to the base to get her on your side, like you do with all the other grunts you fight. The problem is that Quiet is not wearing what you might think of as regular sniper gear – aka, a ghillie suit and enough face paint to keep a children’s fairground supplied for weeks.

No, she wears a skimpy bikini, ripped translucent tights, and always manages to be in just the right position for the camera to leer at her like a dirty old man, to the point where it got genuinely uncomfortable to observe, as if I was expecting somebody to burst in and take a photo of me watching what looked like foreplay. I know Kojima doesn’t know how to keep a consistent tone, but I was wondering for a few moments if he was venturing into softcore porn. It doesn’t help that when you bring her back she’s put into the brig, where she kills time by lying face down with her top off.

But the thing that annoyed me was a tweet by Kojima about Quiet herself, in response to fairly widespread criticism of her design.

“I created her character as an antithesis to the women characters appeared in the past fighting game who are excessively exposed. “Quiet” who doesn’t have a word will be teased in the story as well. But once you recognize the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words & deeds.”

MGSV Quiet

And deprived of her shirt. And her trousers. And her dignity. And her inhaler. Man, I could do these all day.

Intriguing, I thought. A subversion of traditional female representation in games? A major franchise responding to characters like Soulcalibre’s Ivy and Felicia from Darkstalkers? Kojima will probably get it wrong, but it’s a good start and a noble intention. Well done, that man!

Then I played it, saw it, and realised what the statement above was – a trojan horse. There is an explanation in the game for why she dresses like a page three girl with daddy issues, so look away now if you don’t want spoilers – Quiet has been infected by a parasite that gives her superpowers, but her rejiggled biology means that she has to breath through her skin. Therefore, if she gets wrapped up in a sensible jumper and jeans she’d asphyxiate. How inconvenient for her, but how fortunate for the people who really wanted to see a pair of double-d’s flopping around as they prepare to slaughter a camp of Moscow-born soldiers.

For a while I wondered if I’d missed something. How’s that a subversion? How’s that an antithesis? That’s just a plot reason for why she has to dress like that, isn’t it? The Human Centipede has narrative reasons for showing torture footage, but it’s not a satire on body-horror. It’s just the story bending over backwards to fit in the shots that the director wanted to see.

It would be a satire or a clever take if Quiet was secretly a pre-op transexual, or weighed three hundred pounds, because it would be playing on the expectations of the audience. But this is just exhibitionism with the reason made up after the facts. Kojima wanted a sexy character, he’s said as much in interviews. And if he really wants one, then just go ahead and do it, but don’t lie and claim it’s more than it is, i.e., masturbation fodder for those who don’t have a steady internet connection. You can’t have your birthday cake stripper AND eat her too.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

MGSV Soldiers

Who shall we pick? Brutal Slug, Hissing Whale, or the legendary Frigid Moth?

On the whole, the game suffers from one problem – flabbiness. There’s a bit too much of everything, like the editor was late to the offices and didn’t have time to cut it down properly. Too many mechanics, too much dialogue, too long an intro, too much fast-travel. Whilst a sandbox is only as good as its contents, a lot of that stuff just isn’t needed or looks a bit dull.

And yet I’m still looking forward to restarting and getting back to where I was, because there’s a lot of fun to be had here.

That’s the key – to look at the game as a whole reveals the flaws, so it’s more about the moment-to-moment encounters. Dropping into the midst of four thugs and taking them all out with a series of kung-fu kicks and punches, lying face down in the grass as a whole platoon moves past, missing you by inches, or charging out of a base on a bipedal robot chassis, firing your minigun like a madman as a support chopper comes in to help, all the while blaring “The Final Countdown” – those are the moments you take with you, the wheat pulled triumphantly from the chaff, and they’re enough to cancel out any other flaws the game might have.

The Phantom Pain is not perfect, not by a long way, but I could never stay mad at it for long because it’s just too satisfying to play. Now I need to make a new save and rebuild everything I lost before. I can’t say it’s not appropriate.

An over-abundance of bells and whistles can’t quite make me forget that there’s a genuinely excellent rhythm at the centre of it all. A solid stealth system that’s strong enough to drag a brain-damaged plot and a few technical imperfections behind it without slowing it down.