Monday, 30 May 2011

One is the loneliest number (Part 1)

The cold sting of loneliness is a feeling not completely unfamiliar to most gamers. Many games are designed with the lone-wolf in mind. In fact, I bet you're alone reading this right now. Crying.

However, an interesting phenomena has arisen in many current generation games. The protagonist must always, for some reason, require a significant other. Do we not feel our character whole unless they can wrap their virtual arms around a group of pixels and polygons whom they adore? Do we not respect our gritty action hero as much if he doesn't occasionally throw down his chainsaw-photon-lazer cannon in a mad fit of passion? Or is this just the staple of the medium's progression and maturation - and we  have come to expect the same themes present in the best literature or film in Video Games?

Thus I will take you on a journey, a journey of emotional connection and feelings (but not bitterness) as I examine the way relationships are explored in modern games- and also the way in which the single protagonist is put across (but not because I'm bitter).

(Spoilers may follow)

Mass Effect

Long gone are the days where the potential romance of a blue temptress causes controversy. In fact, most gamers now demand it, which has led to some very questionable decisions on the part of the development team behind the upcoming Smurf tie-in movie game.

Mass Effect has been this generation's flagship title in regards to giving the player a variety of options when it comes to seducing. Do you like anthropomorphic bird people? Or perhaps blue tendril-headed women are more you thing? Even Humans (you sicko) are catered for in Bioware's epic sci-fi series.

Relationships are handled in Mass Effect much in the same way they are in real life. You start a conversation with someone you're interested in, say something stupid, re-load your save file and try again. Your companion will eventually show signs of interest; they may wink at you suggestively, awkwardly fidget whenever you come near or even, sweetest of all, implant their alien spawn ready for it to burst forth from your stomach in an explosion of gore. Whomever you choose to court you're guaranteed by the end of the game to have them reveal their feelings for you, you may then proceed to the bedroom. To discuss battle-tactics and particle acceleration. 

However, do the players who choose to have their Shepard remain single gain the full package? Or is a single Shepard a hollow shell of a being?

In the first instalment of the series not a lot will change if your Shepard chooses to stay focused on his or her mission. The choice is there for you to remain single and you're not penalised for choosing it. This is where Mass Effect excels, choice. It appears that in the modern world of gaming a lot of storylines will thrust romance upon you. (what a terrible choice of words) A lone Commander, in this case, appears to be just as well-rounded as the hero who takes to the stars in search of love. I mean, apart from that cut-scene that plays where he or she curls up in the foetal position and gently cries themselves to sleep in their cabin. Other then that it's fine. Okay, maybe that doesn't happen.

In the second Mass Effect there is also acknowledgement given to those who choose to remain loyal to their love interests from the first game, because if there's one thing gamers long for it's fidelity.(For the sake of not spoiling the game I will replace key words in the next few sentences with code words).

Before the final mission where Shepard ventures off to finally confront the DANDELIONS a cutscene will play - if you have chosen to romance one of your crew they will appear in your cabin - ready for the intimate discussion of battle-tactics. If you remain loyal to a previous love-interest instead of gallivanting about your ship like a interstellar Romeo however, your Shepard will be portrayed longingly gazing at a framed picture of said previous interest. Before gearing up to stop the inevitable DANDELION threat of course. So whilst there may be no reward given to the gamer who wants to remain completely single throughout the entirety of the Mass Effect series at least there is an equal sense of emotional attachment given to those who stay single in the series' second instalment.

Well, in most cases this will happen - for some reason my game portrayed my male Shepard who had romanced Liara as staring intently at a picture of his former lieutenant Kaidan. My Shepard was a deeply conflicted fellow.

Therefore, Mass Effect treats the player who chooses to remain alone just as well as the player who wants to sow his wild space-oats across the galaxy. Ultimately no relationship is forced onto the player and you lose nothing significant for choosing this path. Your hero can still be a hero regardless of whether they do it alone or whether they bring a +1 into the picture.  

Next Heavy Rain...

Monday, 16 May 2011

SCEE Welcome back package detailed

This information was taken from the official Playstation EU blog and has since been taken down:
Two PS3 games from the following list:
  • LittleBigPlanet
  • Infamous*
  • Wipeout HD/Fury
  • Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty
  • Dead Nation*
For those with PSP accounts, you will also be eligible to download two PSP games from the following list:
  • LittleBigPlanet PSP
  • ModNation PSP
  • Pursuit Force
  • Killzone Liberation*
- 30 days free PlayStation Plus membership for non PS Plus subscribers*
- Existing PlayStation Plus subscribers will be given 60 days free subscription.
- For existing Music Unlimited subscribers, you will be given 30 days free subscription

There was also some indication that there will be some form of gift for Playstation Home users. What exactly this includes was not detailed.

*German PSN users will not be receiving these games but will instead get Super Stardust HD and Hustle Kings on the PS3. Also, German PSP owners will get Everybody's Gold 2 and Buzz Junior Jungle party instead of  Pursuit Force and Killzone Liberation on the PSP.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Yakuza 4 Review

Stand in front of the mirror and look yourself up and down. Is your finely ironed business-wear smattered with the dried blood of rival crime syndicates? No? Then perhaps Yakuza 4 can fix that for you.

Sega's yearly plunge into the criminal underworld of Japan is back once again and whilst this years model may not stray too far from the original recipe of face grinding and neck snapping - it's a well crafted addition to a solid series.

Set in the red light district of Kamurocho, a fictional town in Tokyo, Yakuza 4 presents a gritty and authentically Japanese portrayal of Japan's criminal underworld. During the course of the story the player is introduced to four strikingly different characters who's paths become intertwined after a string of murders and revelations of corruption that's embedded deep in the Yakuza's operations. These are:
Shun Akiyama, a money-lender who can mysteriously charge no interests on his loans.
Taiga Saejima, a convict on the run from the law after being convicted of killing 18 members or a rival yakuza family single handedly
Masayoshi Tanimura, a cop with his own sense of justice seeking answers for the death of his father.
Kiryu Kazuma, Star of the previous titles - the famed 'Dragon of Dojima' and former head of the prestigious yakuza branch known as the Tojo Clan.

First and foremost your enjoyment of this game will largely depend on whether or not you've experienced previous Yakuza titles, namely Yakuza 3. A lot of content is recycled from this previous instalment and not much has been done to expand on the gauntlet that Yakuza 3 threw down. If you enjoyed Yakuza 3 and wouldn't mind playing an extremely similar sequel then this game may very well be for you however. If you're new to the series then this shouldn't be a problem. Newcomers are also welcomed with an introduction to the series, revealing the plot of the previous three Yakuzas and bringing you up to date with a narrated cut-scene laden synopsis. Think of it as like speed-dating, but instead of a forty-something desperate accountant telling you about her cats it's a forty something mob boss telling you all the details of one of the most brutal and chaotic crime organisations on the planet. Also you don't have to buy him dinner.

In regards to gameplay, Yakuza's combat stands out as its most engrossing feature. I don't know about you, but I've always felt members of the Japanese mafia have too many teeth. This game is willing to change that. The player can perform brutal combos on swarms of mindless thugs easily and in style. Most importantly combat is handled  in a manner that's completely satisfying. You may get a sick sense of fulfilment from throwing a lit cigarette into the eyes of an arrogant ragamuffin, but that doesn't make you a bad person. Right? As you progress you'll also gain experience that can be used to obtain a number of unlockable combat techniques for each character, most of which involve some variation of stomping your opponents face into the ground with your foot. However, though combat is ultimately an enjoyable experience it may grow tedious as the player is forced into street fights every few seconds whilst going about their daily business. There are apparently a lot of people who don't like you in Tokyo and they aren't afraid to show it. Don't worry though, I think you're lovely. Sometimes.

There are actual batting cages in Kamorucho but batting thugs is far better.

 Though players are given the option of roaming around town to do as they please Yakuza is mainly a story driven game and it is this that can be seen as a double-edged sword. Whilst many of the characters are charming and likeable the story is somewhat convoluted. For example, often rival families will have grudges against each other but you wont necessarily be able to tell what families derive from which clan and which clan is led by who. Whilst there is an option to bring up a chart showing how each character is connected from the menu this doesn't excuse the fact that some revelations in the plot can leave you confused as to what just happened. Especially later in the game. There are however some stand-alone moments in the story that are really powerful and though the plot can cause confusion story-telling is consistently dramatic.

The way in which the story is presented is also simultaneously both a strong and weak point in Yakuza - often the game will switch between fully voiced (entirely in Japanese) cut scenes, which are rendered superbly, to voiceless text-box orientated scenes with canned animations. Sometimes the switch is seemingly random as well, with conversations starting off in cut scenes - switching to in game silent models - then going back into cut scenes. Scrolling through boxes of text waiting for the next portion of gameplay also subtracts from the pacing of more dramatic moments.

Pacing in general can be seen as an issue for Yakuza in fact, the player is given a plethora of different side-quests and mini-games but the urgency of the story never really makes it feel like you should take the time out to enjoy them. The fact that you can spend hours singing Karaoke when you're meant to be running to save someone in dire need can take away from the engrossing nature of the story. However, the variety and sheer amount of things to do in Tokyo's pleasure district is one of the games strongest assets. The player can visit gambling halls, restaurants, massage parlous, golf courses, hostess bars and arcades (to name just a few) and engage in copious amounts of activities. Some side-quests can be a bit tedious as you progress however, as most them culminate in brawl with generic thugs, the same generic thugs that you have been beating up for the entire game. None the less the city of Kamurocho feels bustling and alive with so many things to do. So put on your best shoes and paint the town red. With the blood of your enemies. Actually, it's probably best not to wear your best shoes for that.

Yakuza 4 delivers an odd package, it manages to portray a gritty and authentic portrayal of Japanese culture and crime whilst maintaining an aura of the surreal humour that Japan is known for. Whilst the story may be hard to follow you're sure to be drawn in by likeable characters and satisfying combat, and with so much to do in Kamurocho you'll be able to play for hours on end and lose yourself in it's world.   

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Details from the next Assassin's Creed game have slowly been eeked out over the past week or so, almost like a type of virtual water-boarding. Except far more painful. Sort of. Finally however, the turtoresses' that are Ubisoft have taken us out from under cold, damp depths of mystery and confusion and have delivered the announcement of Assassins' Creed: Revelations - the next 'big' game in the critically acclaimed series that will continue Desmond's on-going story and finish off the journey of his ancestor Ezio. There is also some implication that the game will feature a re-emergence as Altair as a playable character.

Not much has been revealed about the title apart from Ezio, Desmond and Altair's return and that the new setting for the game is Constantinople (Istanbul) at the peak of the Ottoman Empire. It can also be assumed that stabbing, running and hiding/ seamlessly blending in groups of people dressed nothing like you will make a welcome return.

Don't fret at the lack of known information however, because , as we all know, speculation and wishing is as much of a solid grounding for information as fact. Thus I shall run through my wish list for Assassin's Creed: Revelations and the features I want included: (You know, other than some form of revelation(s))

People in the past should die

Ever since I finished Assassin's Creed II and grew a strong bond to the loveable florentine rouge that is Ezio Auditore da Firenze I've had one wish. That he would die. Not that he's a particularly annoying or badly created character, I've just always wondered what would happen to Desmond (voiced by the omnipresent Nolan North) if he had to experience death through the mind-tapping world of the Animus. Experiencing lives within a life has proved irksome for our young protagonist but outer-body - inner-body - past life- deaths would make for some interesting story-telling.  Like I've always said, everyone would be happier if more people just died. Or something along those lines.

Desmond brings it

Assassin's Creed II and it's sequel Brotherhood gave us a small taster of what Desmond was capable of. He can leap into piles of hay with seemingly no fore-thought of possible consequence like a pro. However, I would like to see him take a more active approach to his abilities - specifically in regards to busting heads. Throughout the entire of Brotherhood Desmond equipped himself with a hidden-blade, the perfect tool for some covert stabbing - however he did little more with it than pry open doors and cut loose threads off his gleaming white hooded jacket. Which I maintain was designed for a woman.

Modern day Assassins do some Assassin-ing

Danny Wallace is the critically acclaimed author of 'Yes Man'. He is also one of my favourite writers and humourists. On top of that he is also a deadly deadly assassin in Ubisofts virtual realm. Therefore I would like him, and all the other modern day Assassins, to stab something other than their keyboards with their boney, book-handling fingers. You can't always murder people with razor sharp, British dry wit Danny - pick up a knife and do some well deserved cold-blooded murder.

A boss that's actually a boss

Whilst I never tire of beating up well known elderly religious figures I feel the challenge is lost somewhat when this is the pinnacle of the game. Actual boss-fights against actual threats wouldn't go amiss in the Assassin's Creed series. Whilst this particular set of titles has never been famed for its difficulty an epic concluding boss-battle would be a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise desolate landscape of one hit killed, cold, lifeless bodies. Who that boss might be I have yet to decide however, perhaps given the setting of Istanbul...a giant turkey?

Desmond loses it

Throughout the series players have received several hints of a mysterious patient known as 'Subject 16' going mad and meeting a bloody end as a result of the Animus. Desmond's time with the machine at this stage must be adding up and I for one have always been curious to see how it's affecting his psyche. Dreams and hallucinations were briefly touched upon in the second instalment of the series but other then that Desmond has shown not even a hint of murderous, hate-filled, psychotic intent. The weird Bastard.

Repressed memories

One of my favourite features in Brotherhood was the inclusion of several of Ezio's repressed memories. These daunting insights into the events that forever changed the young, care-free mavericks life were a refreshing change to the staunch and hardened Ezio that was presented to the player in the main story. Maybe if we delve deeper into the memories of Desmond's ancestors we can get more of an insight into their character, perhaps we can even see all the birthday parties that Altair's father missed or some of Mario Auditore's infamous special hugs.

A little help here guys

Also a welcome inclusion for me in Brotherhood was the addition of a gang of Assassin compadres that could be called upon in your moments of dire need. However, this gang of hooded misfits ended up feeling more like an extra weapon as opposed to an ever-present assisting force - often Ezio would feel alone, even if he had hordes of deadly trained killers at his side. Perhaps members of the Assassin order need to be given more of a role and personality so we can truly appreciate their presence on the battlefield. It's always best to get by with a little help from your friends after all.

Those are just some of the features and mechanics that I wish would be expanded on in the newest instalment of Assassin's Creed. 'Revelations' is set to hit us, like a high-speed crossbow bolt fired from a nearby pile of hay, at the end of this year and will be a most likely improvement on the high standard set by previous titles in the series.