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.

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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.

Change for Change’s Sake

The internet is full of idiots. Websites to do with gaming, doubly so. Normally I find myself ignoring the majority of commenters for their sheer stupidity, and even the topics which truly tend to rile me up have, in recent months, trended towards being less successful in doing so. (Evidently, being a member of the first generation to grow up with the internet has led to my growing weary of certain topics far sooner than ever thought possible.) But with the recent release of the (utterly shit) Hitman: Absolution, I find myself challenged by an old nemesis.

Trawling the internet for reviews of 47’s latest adventure to laugh at (if positive) or bathe in a puddle of mournfulness with (if negative), I came across Polygon’s review. The review itself was, of course, wrong but, as I’ve said, such a positive response to such a rubbish game didn’t quite enrage me in the way it used to. Instead, my irritation arose with this comment:

The suggestion seems to be that asking for an adherence to a series’ actual set-up and gameplay is counter to asking for innovation and evolution. The suggestion is also horse shit, because these are not two ideas that counter one another in the slightest, nor do they make the person asking for them a hypocrite.

Hitman: Blood Money is widely regarded as the best game of the series, and yet it was in many ways very different to its predecessors. Almost all of the game’s effort was now spent on imagining mini-sandboxes in which to experiment, whilst any sense of linearity had been almost entirely vanquished. No more trekking through blizzards in Japan, no more instant-insertions into dangerous territories. Mission areas became mostly inhabited by civilians, and players were, more than ever, encouraged to poke about their environment, to think and plan before striking. Blood Money was at once relaxed and yet puzzling. It was, fundamentally, the same as its forebears: introducing change in order to fully realise the concept that the series had begun with, yet evolved away from the crap that had kept it down.

Hitman: Absolution, however, is a game that does not do that. It is linear, heavily story-driven (don’t worry, the story’s also shit), and very rarely even features a target that you have to kill; let alone a fully-realised, open area in which to do so methodically. In fact, there’s only one mission in the whole game that anywhere near approaches what the four previous games have done their best to achieve. Sure, it’s changed, but only in that it has regressed: and change for the hell of changing is not worthy of automatic praise or an XX% score boost; but then neither would a carbon copy of the previous entry be particularly laudable either.

The fact of the matter is that we should always encourage evolution as much as we should encourage a sense of pride in a series’ uniqueness, mission-statement (a fairly horrible phrase for a creative effort, but the best I can think of right now), and spirit. Neither is a contradiction of the other, but what progress is built on: it’s what gave us Blood Money, and it’s what was ignored to make Absolution such a crushing disappointment.