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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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.

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.