Achievement Whore

Two days ago I finished the freshly rebooted Tomb Raider. Two hours ago I watched Adam Sessler’s review of God of War: Ascension. Four minutes after that I remembered that four days previously I had taken similar issue with one of Tomb Raider’s achievements, only to forget about it five minutes later. Beginning five seconds ago, here are my thoughts on that issue. 

‘Clever Girl’. That’s what it’s called. You get it for, “Purchasing all skills in one category”. I am nothing if not a great consumer. Still, the name: ironic jab? Jurassic Park reference? Possibly. Probably. In either case, when the little guy popped up it left me mildly perturbed, and the reason for that is thus.

Just… come on guys. For anyone who is yet to play Tomb Raider - which, according to my review, you probably should do, maybe – it’s important to understand that its creators have a clear reverence for the character they’re recreating. Yes, it’s the sort of reverence that initially proves itself by beating the ever-loving fuck out of Lara before exclaiming, “look how much she can take!”, but it is reverence nonetheless. Which is what makes such a patronising little pop-up so peculiar. I hesitate to use the words ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynistic’, not because those don’t exist in games or gaming or the gaming industry – as the man-children that inhabit every single gaming site ever will eternally claim – but because ‘Clever Girl’ is such a trivial thing. There’s no malice behind it and it’s not relevant enough to the game proper to consider it some form of ingrained, subconscious sexism either. Indeed, I leapt to the defence of both the game and its developers when the whole ‘sexism’ furor kicked off, when there really was no controversy. And I think that’s why it’s so disappointing, and so jarring, to see them even lean slightly towards that type of attitude now, especially when it’s in such great contention with the rest of the game.

On the one hand, you might point out that the achievement is, quite obviously, intended for us, the players; it has nothing to do with Lara at all. But on the other, that’s not really true. We might be playing her, but we’re also quite literally divorced from her. We’re not playing her in the same way we play Gordon Freeman, because we’re expected to fully assume Gordon’s role. The man’s a cup-holder. Lara is a person, fully-characterised and independent, not in action but motive, of the player. So the achievement really is aimed at Lara as well, which makes the question of ‘Why?’ all the more pressing. When a game is as sober, some might even say humourless, as Tomb Raider is with regards to its leading-lady, there’s little sense in trying to inject any through bloody achievement pop-ups of all things. It’s difficult to take your oh-so-serious treatment of Lara seriously if you then look like you’re mocking your own seriousness, and seem as if you really can’t resist some form of gender-based dig.

‘Clever Girl’ is, as I’ve said, a really very minor misstep presented in a really very trivial manner. The problem, ultimately, is that its effect is several times more distracting and disappointing than it should be because of that very fact. Silly boys.

Anatomically Incorrect: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider makes its two gravest mistakes in the first hour of its lifespan. Mistake the First: it makes a bunch of other mistakes; egregious QTEs, overbearing cutscenes and all that jazz. Mistake the Second: it eventually relents from being A Bit Shit, and forces budding reviewers like myself to rewrite their prematurely snide first paragraphs. CROOOFT! 

Still, what’d the world come to without a little snideness? There are several perfect ways to encapsulate the very essence of Tomb Rebooter, and they’re all snippets of dialogue delivered by the main characters. Lara herself utters, without a mite of referential irony, both, “I have a bad feeling about this”, and, “It’s too quiet…”. Clichéd, silly, whole-heartedly stolen. None of these things really matter, because it’s delivered with such an earnest belief in what’s being said – through the rather alluring vocal-chords of the lovely Camilla Luddington, I might add – and with such an admirably straight-face, that it rather gets away with it. Some games are eternally compared to countless others without anyone ever quite hitting the G-spot. Take DishonoUred. On the list of supposed influences, allusions and downright thefts there is: BioshockMirror’s EdgeThief, Half-Life 2Deus ExAssassin’s CreedHitman, and Army of Two for the mask, obviously. You can certainly see what people are getting at, but what they’re getting at is never quite gotten. On the other hand, Womb Looter is Uncharted smashed together with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Oh, and with every single corpse left over from Mass Effect 3′s Reaper invasion thrown in for good measure.

Of the two, Lara makes a better vigilante than she does Harrison Fordian – although one suspects she’d be the perfect poster-child for a Lovecraftian race of space squids if her final body-count is anything to go by. What’s odd is that the main story rarely relents and permits you a natural pause to go back and do all those Arkhamy things like explore areas for collectibles; and whilst it’s possible to do all that once the game’s ended, it all rather loses its appeal when the hours of gameplay sitting in front of you consist solely of finding meaningless trinkets. Like so many other games, what seems to have been treated as a breather from the plot is what the main game should have focused on: Lara’s supposed to be getting turned on to a life of exploring and adventuring after all this, so bloody well make me adventure!

What’s most perplexing about the Nate-Bat blend is that, well… there’s no real Tomb Raider of old in there. Lara herself is enjoyably recognisable, it must be said. For all the written clichés that are resting up against her, the Lady of the Manor herself is quite a convincing specimen, and there’s little doubt that this is the ‘real life’ edition of the Action Woman of yesteryear. Despite all the killing (and boy, does she kill), it’s always in self defence and there’s a strong sense of reluctance underpinning the necessity. One does wonder, however, why this wasn’t made into more of a stealth game when stealth is already an incorporated, if often briefly-applicable, element of play. The premise begs for an improvisational weapon-system backing up defensive stealth play, but the whole thing ignores that in favour of debilitating faceless dudes with pistol, shotgun and rifle bullets that benefit from a bog-standard upgrade system with an intellectual deficit. The much-vaunted bow adds a rustic element, but it’s not enough.

She’s a real looker. And Lara’s not too bad herself.

But yes, the lack of Tomb Raider. If Lady Croft is the first thing that comes to mind when the words “Tomb Raider” are uttered, then Angel of Darkness is easily the sec-

Ha! Just kidding. No, it’s the tombs, silly. And what Loom Braider seriously lacks is tombs. There are rooms they call ‘tombs’, but these are optional, single-puzzle challenge rooms, and they’re easy as hell. Tomb Raider has always been about spending hours working through one tomb, beginning at the outside and penetrating (hehe) deeper and deeper, until by the end of it you feel as if you’ve swapped digits with the Earth’s core. Your mind’s eye could mentally trace back over two hours of platforming, from the heart of a tomb to its front doors. What this latest entry lacks is depth of a geographical kind. It’s finale looks as if it’s leading into this, but it’s not to be. I’m sure there are justifications and excuses, and they’ll almost certainly be narrative in nature. That’s really no excuse: if the narrative you want to tell is at odds with the very essence of the game, change the damn narrative.

On the decidedly more Uncharted side of things there is some enjoyment to be had from the ‘cinematic’ (get me a bucket), pull-you-by-the-nose approach, but the game is vain beyond reason. Most of the set-pieces set themselves up to be quite the thrilling endeavour, but almost all become cutscene slogs where control is intermittently wrestled away so that you can be shown the next segment, or look at how everything is crumbling about your ears, when you can bloody-well see it from where you are. Ultimately they mostly prove themselves to be an irritant, and they lack even the most basic thrill of launching Lara at a rock-face and burying the climbing-axe into it. Why? Because in those moments you’re actually allowed to play. You make the jump. You put the axe into the rock.

And that simple thrill, along with the endearing new Lara, is what carries this latest Broom Cradler. Hell, that’s what’s carried all her previous adventures as well. The series has never needed combat, and it only needs it here because it’s no longer doing what the series has always done. And this reboot does beg the question of whether or not all of the new-fangled hub-based toing and froing has burnt the real exploration forever. But whilst Tomb Raider has its fare share of crap that both worries and annoys me, I can’t not like it.

Alpha Protocol Redux: Prelude

I was wrong once. The year was 2010, and the subject of my falter was the dank and depressing Metro 2033. Ejecting it rather violently from my disc drawer at the game’s halfway point, every conceivable facet of Metro seemed to me to be loathsome: the limp combat, impotent stealth, crappy gas mask mechanic, dour loading screen expositions, even the jarring implementation early-on of third-person cutscenes. Returning to it after months of internet-bitching, I found the experience to be… well, much the same. The combat remains to this day something of a damp-squib, although its ineffectualness has been plugged somewhat with the addition of ‘Ranger’ difficulties, whilst the gas mask mechanic is either simply broken or else woefully unclear to everyone ever. And yet as I slinked through its moody tunnels and stations and service depots there was, undeniably, something new, something sublime: an understated and haunting slice of excellence. Stealth in particular had become something to master and conquer; not an irritating and buggy instance of half-arsedness, but a finely-tuned and almost erotically-satisfying undertaking. In short: at first I was blind, but then I came to see.

Alpha Protocol is a game which echoes the first-half of my Metro experience: the bit where I hate it and badmouth it and surprisingly large groups of people arrive at my doorstep to reel off its supposed positives. All the while I remain convinced that had it been put out by the British government then I’m pretty sure a certain Mr Tucker would have labelled it a “fucking omnishambles” and sent the spin-cycle into overdrive to make up for it. Indeed, any number of quibbles and hatreds are resurrected through my memories of Alpha Protocol. For starters, it’s an ugly sumbitch. Then there’s tone, which seemed to veer from almost generically straight-faced in its Middle East segment to pure cheese later on. Add to that a rather forgetful cast of characters, laughably uninspired plot (spy ‘thriller’ in evil PMC shocker) and some incredibly contradictory design, and you’ve got yourself a fuck up. And yet for the longest time, my venomous attitude towards it has bothered me. Because Alpha Protocol is a game I should at least admire in some aspect, isn’t it? The malleability of its story and the attempt, at least, to permit wildly different playstyles are things I tend to bang on about. Shouldn’t I at least have commended it for giving it a go?

So, in desperate need of a new writing project and with a sore lack of excuses to ignore another batch of upcoming University essays, I have set myself a challenge: to replay Alpha Protocol, and to see if I wasn’t right about the piece of crap uh… little fellow the first time. As I post this I’m nearing the end of the game’s Middle East portion, so with any luck, all shall be updated soon.

On Aspirations and Penis Envy

When I was five I wanted to be a policeman. Then I grew up to be incredibly pretty, and realised that the life of a grey-looking, slightly overweight middle-aged man (otherwise known as half the cast of The Bill, may it rest in peace) was not for me; not if I was to also spend half my time running about, at any rate. Soon after came an interest in writing, once I’d stopped pretending to my Dad, a Maths teacher, that Maths was my favourite subject. It’s because of that interest, specifically an interest in journalism, that I’m now doing English Literature at University, as well as writing an infrequent-but-regular column in Haywire Magazine, which you should totes check out.

Lately, my interest in this journalistic pursuit has begun to wane. I suppose in part that this could have something to do with it being a seemingly dying field – or at least one evolving far quicker than anyone involved with it can currently cope with – and I’d rather not pile my goals on a career path that’s got the potential to be, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, a financial shit hole. Not that I’d ever want to go into something, or refuse to go into something, because of the money involved, but… well, a man’s gotta dress.

More than that though, I’m pretty sure it has to do with my being surrounded with art students at my particularly arty University. When most of the people around you are paying £9000 a year to paint there does, oddly, begin to creep in a feeling of envy. Tearing other people’s work to shreds for at least three years might make me somewhat (emphasis on the ‘somewhat’) more broadly appealing to employers  than someone who’s been brushing up (ho ho ho) on their oil painting, but I can’t deny that the desire to create something that people feel is noteworthy enough to tear apart in the first place is more alluring. I guess I’m suffering from a kind of intellectual penis envy, if you will. Most of those Fine Art folks will never produce anything deemed culturally valuable, but the aim far outweighs the reality: the highs of a creator sail above those of all but the most noteworthy of critics and journalists; hell, even the idea of being a struggling artist is the more romantic and enticing option.

What am I saying then? Well, I still want to be a writer. But what I really want is to be a writer-writer: a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter. Something, and something that carries itself with some significance and weight. (Although I must say that poetry has never, and likely will never, appeal.) And whilst that’s not the most original nor interesting of aspirations, it bears a personal importance. Because for the first time, I actually have some form of higher aspiration that I feel particularly drawn to.

Perhaps I’m a glory-hunter, or even just a slightly more trumped-up product of a fame-obsessed generation, but I find myself staring down one unavoidable truth: a critic might command an adoring following, but I’d rather be one of the guys whose work they’ve spent their lives deconstructing and shitting on and praising to the high heavens; the esoteric, borderline-alcoholic creator-genius interviewee over the intelligent, chirpy interviewer. In short, I want to be a narcissist worthy of his own narcissism. Perhaps such a top-down, in-it-for-the-glory outlook means I’ll never get there, but at least I now I have a ‘there’ to hold on to as a distant focus.

Game of the Year: DayZ

How do you write a love letter to someone you know will never love you back? Moreover, how do you admit that the only reason you love such a person is because they don’t love you back? Such are the questions that I imagine face literally tens of people every day. But enough of that, let’s talk about my Game of the Year pick, DayZ: the baddest man in the whole damn town.

Gaming has a habit, a pretty bloody bad one, of tugging on the knee of cinema and asking it for advice. Cinema then ignores it, and gaming proceeds to steal cinema’s casual wear t-shirts and chinos when its not looking. It’s a decent enough ensemble for cinema on a chill day, but for gaming it’s just ill-fitting. And often not in a slightly oversized or slightly skinny way either: they just don’t look good on gaming. It’s awkward. But because the clothes are more expensive and better looking than anything gaming and its friends have ever worn before, they all accept it as looking great. Well, if there’s one thing that DayZ has shown me, it’s that it’s about fucking time gaming began to tailor its own shit.

(And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy games that have at least bought their own t-shirts and chinos that do fit, even if the t-shirt’s got a reference to cinema emblazoned on the front. But the stolen clothes seem to remain in the majority, at least when it comes to the mainstream, and increasingly I find myself entirely disinterested in that considerably large side of things.)

Films are manipulative. So are books. So is music. So are an awful lot of games. Each of them aims to make you feel something at a specific moment – they whisper in your ear and give you a little push in the right direction.  You might fall the wrong way or not even move, but there’s a silent acknowledgement that you’re being in some way pressured to react and feel. DayZ takes a more deistic approach: it just doesn’t give a fuck about you. About to die from hunger and thirst, with no food around? Tough shit. Having your arse torn apart by zombies? Should have been more careful, bitch. Other players griefing you? Other players are arse holes, and so are you for that matter. And that’s what makes it work: because you’re not being pushed or persuaded into feeling one way or another, anything and everything you do feel is organic. The fact that you’re playing a game doesn’t matter, because now every emotional response you have is a genuine one. (Of course, the downside is the fact that if DayZ were a person, it’d be someone’s abusive spouse.)

Compare this to my second choice for Game of the Year, Mass Effect 3. I talked about it a little in my last post and said this:

What that last ending didn’t do was make me angry. It made me feel sick, genuinely anxious about facing that final firefight in the rubble of London, and possessively nostalgic for the characters and events of the series’ past.

I maintain that I do love Mass Effect 3 for achieving what it does, emotionally: no game before it had done so quite as convincingly. But when you look back on it in the face of DayZ, the millions of dollars, thousands of man hours, five years of releases and ninety or so hours of gameplay to get there start to look less impressive and more puzzlingly unnecessary. Because all it takes for DayZ to facilitate the same feelings of dread, guilt, regret, anxiousness and excitement is a shitty little pistol, a building potentially full of life-saving gear and the mere suggestion of another player in the same vicinity; a person as wildly unpredictable and potentially dangerous to you as you are to them.

Often I’ve said that DayZ is, more than anything, a story generator. Each new character brings with them a new tale, whether it’s a short vignette before an immediate death, or a winding narrative over the course of many hours and days. But now I think that, more than even that, it’s a game about letting you feel – whatever that feeling may be.

 

Woods’ Weflexicon: 2012 in Gaming

… has been a bit shit, really. Like the non-prophesy that engulfed the minds of idiots everywhere for all of yesterday (and the many years leading up to it), 2012 in gaming has been, like the 21st December specifically, a matter of relentless promise left to fizzle out in blisteringly quick succession. It’s not as if there’s been nothing I’ve enjoyed from this year, but for one so seemingly packed-full of awaited-sequels and praised new entries it’s all been a bit underwhelming.

If I were to be fair – which I categorically refuse to be – then I’d admit that 2011 had Portal 2The Witcher 2Deus Ex: Human RevolutionSkyrim and Batman: Arkham City, three of which have easily become some of my favourite games of all the years, and so it was perhaps inevitable that 2012 would falter in my eyes. But even so, I can’t remember the last time I felt quite so neutral towards such a supposedly ‘good’ year.

Still, there remained beacons of impressiveness, so here’s a few begrudging thoughts on some of the year’s supposed highlights (also known as “the games I can remember off the top of my head”), for your own miserable consideration.

Journey

You’d think that Journey, going by the voices of internet commenters and critics alike, was the equivalent of peering into the abyss and being confronted by a 20-foot tall Kate Upton, all blonde and curvy and ruddy-well perfect. Moved to tears they all were; “this is proof of gaming as art!” they cried in chorus. Bad art, maybe. Boring art, bloody certainly.

A barely interactive, unambitious slice of generic pie, Journey has, I fear, claimed such accolades by looking pretty and acting a bit ethereal and not really saying anything whatsoever. Like the players it sets you next to, it is at its core an indistinct and unmemorable experience. Had it not received, and continued to receive, the reception it did, I’d have probably have forgotten all about it by now. Ineffectual and impotent.

Mass Effect 3

One of the biggies. A really quite wonderful creation offset by a disproportionately large furor over the fact that it had, quite shockingly for a video game, a pretty shit ending. Claims are sent this way and that about false advertising and how choices didn’t matter and blah blah blah. What I know is this: Mass Effect 3 is an ending. Every damn minute of it. And as a whole, it’s then divided into lots of little endings. True, the last miniature ending was probably the worst. But I’ve seen worse and I’ve no doubt I’ll see worse again.

What that last ending didn’t do was make me angry. It made me feel sick, genuinely anxious about facing that final firefight in the rubble of London, and possessively nostalgic for the characters and events of the series’ past. Few films I’ve seen  (although The Lord of the Rings comes to mind) have quite so gut-wrenchingly emulated the feeling of being marched towards your own doom, nor so devastatingly beaten characters into a ditch and forced them to push just that little bit further. And for that, I’m quite sure that I loved it.

Max Payne 3

I’ve reviewed a few games now (none on this site so far, bar Hitman: Absolution) and none have later left me so split on the praise I’d given them. Max Payne 3 is the single-best, straight-up third-person shooter I’ve ever played – when you actually get to play it. The rest of the time it’s a bombardment of overly-long, irritatingly frequent cutscenes too in love with its own, admittedly and annoyingly decent, writing.

DishonoUred

DishonoUred was to be my darling baby, but in the end it’s left me cold: mechanically exquisite it may be (and it is, for the most part), but its narrative ultimately proves so uninteresting, its characters so dull, that in the end I find myself difficult to be enthused by it post-play.

But then I remember all the hijinks I got up to freezing time; all the “WTF?!”‘s of the guards I possessed; the ridiculous, engineered suicides of my attackers; the time a patrolman caught me sneaking away with a body slung over my shoulder and blew himself up after throwing a whale oil tank to the ground to pull his sword on me. And then I chuckle, and chuckle more as I read about other people’s vignettes of silliness and imagination.

It may not have robbed my attention like it should have, nor created a world or narrative that drew me in as its forebears managed, but DishonoUred was an important game, and its success may, alongside that of Human Revolution’s, help resuscitate a genre that’s slowly looking to breathe regularly again.

Hitman: Absolution

A perfect contrast to DishonoUred, Shitman: Absolutely is what happens when a genuinely unique series is left in the hands of people who only half understand, or indeed care about, it. Not only is Absolution a terrible Hitman game but a legitimate fuck up in its own right, muddled with systems that are completely broken, right down to the bloody save system. Throw in a laughably fucking awful plot and watch as one of gaming’s greatest crumbles under a steaming pile of utter shit.

Spec Ops: The Line

Much like JourneySpec Ops managed to encourage of chorus of “Oh, look how fucking arty gaming is!”. Unlike Journey, it wasn’t shit. Whether it’s quite worth the PDF book someone’s apparently written analysing it or not (I fall firmly in the “Hellz Nuh” category), it was most certainly a pleasant surprise and a subversive little fucker, packed full of cues and subtleties hinting towards its big reveal.

Is it better than its similarly themed and similarly inspired counterpart, Far Cry 2? I’m not sure. Far Cry 2 certainly has the upper-hand in that it relentlessly adheres to making you live its every waking moment as your character must – to put it crudely, it’s more of a game – but then I suppose Spec Ops had something of Bioshock in its message/theme/idea as well, and its initial appearance as generic third-person shooter is key to its subversion.

In truth, I suspect the volume of its reception has been somewhat overblown, but not the nature of the reception itself.

Sleeping Dogs

A painfully unimaginative and average addition to its genre, Sleeping Dogs seems to have gotten praise simply because it all works better than GTA IV - not exactly a difficult task, considering GTA IV was 4 years ago and virtually none of it actually fucking worked. But instead of actually forging a crime epic that takes note from the double agent aspects of Splinter Cell: Double AgentSleeping Dogs establishes your character as an inside-man without making you actually play one.

An interesting concept wasted on safe-bets and a lack of aspiration, given free passage by a baying crowd of Yes-Men.

The Darkness II

A terribly short and engaging little number, The Darkness II was a bite-sized slice of self-contained cleverness and good writing. Whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster title, it did manage to evoke the balancing act of thoughtfulness and action that Christopher Nolan’s encouraged in that particular corner of the film industry. Touching and brutal in appropriate measure.

So there we are. I’ve left one particular game off for a Game of the Year post: maybe you know what it is, maybe you don’t. In any case, nobody actually cares what you think you know, Steve.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution

Standing 5 feet and 11 generously-measured inches tall, weighing in at 160 lbs., and having lived on the mean streets of South East London for 2 whole months, I’d like to think that I’m not the most easily frightened person in the world. Of course, I’m not without concerns: spiders, human beings’ natural predators, give me the absolute willies, whilst  the threat of brain aneurisms is a constant concern. But all-in-all, I think I’m pretty well-rounded in the phobia arena. Still, I’m not immune to the fears of lesser men – usually a mild feeling of vertigo. But most recently? Claustrophobia. Only instead of fear, it’s inspired unparalleled levels of irritation inspired, a result of the “efforts” of the latest Hitman outing.

Where previous entries provided maps and disguises to allow inconspicuous and considerable planning, Absolution turns a series of patience and puzzling into a clumsily built stealth-shooter that incessantly tugs 47 along by the nuts. Gone are the satellite maps and effective disguises in the names of narrative and “realism”, butchered is the art of subtlety and freedom at the behest of set-pieces and spectacle. Hits – assuming you’re even give one, and then assuming you’re actually allowed to attempt it yourself instead of watching a cutscene – are no longer planned, but stumbled through blindly. Whilst Absolution may pretend that disguises are still relevant, guards can now almost-immediately see through them if they’re wearing the same thing: as most levels are occupied by only one NPC type, they become absolutely useless. When coupled with an annoyingly tight camera, levels which are mere corridor runs and the omniscient, forever scrutinising AI, the result is an infuriatingly constricting experience punctuated by my own sobs of what could – and ruddy well should – have been.

Absolution’s killing blow is its focus on plot. Fudging mechanics almost perfected by its predecessor over 6 years ago quite so spectacularly as it manages to do is one thing; doing so to give way for one of the single-most turgid, achingly stupid pieces of writing I’ve ever had to sit through and endure is another. Whilst the series has always held a peculiar fascination for its ridiculous clone mythology that’s not entirely dissimilar to that of a young boy’s for his dick, it’s never presented it in such an obnoxious, overbearing and flat-out laughable way. Likewise, where previous entries, Blood Money in particular, have used the hyper-sexualisation of incredibly obnoxious background characters to filter the world through the eyes of a near-enough asexual clone assassin, Absolution has you sit and watch as such pricks are endlessly rammed down your throat. It is suffocating.

Despite being a relentlessly irritating masterclass in laziness and misplaced priorities however, the accompanying, nausea-induced claustrophobia caused by Absolution’s design and narrative ultimately prove themselves to be entirely appropriate. Because if nothing else, playing Absolution is like watching the series choke and ‘bate itself to death in front of your very eyes. An insufferably self-indulgent piece of wank, from beginning to end.