Archive for September, 2010

Taking down my white whale

I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the majority of gamers (bar the most dedicated completionists amongst us) have at least a few games within their collection that they’ve never finished. There’s a plethora of reasons why games go unfinished – I know from personal experience that I’ve abandoned games because I’ve got bored of them, because I’ve been distracted, not had the time, or because a game was just too shit to even bother dumping more of my time into.

Generally when a game gets abandoned for one of these reasons it’s no big deal – you either go back to it at some later date, or you’re happy to let it languish at the back of a shelf.

But occasionally you encounter a rarity – a game that for one reason or another you have not, or even cannot beat – every moment that it goes unfinished something at the back of your brain burns away. Something in you that was once defeated, like Captain Ahab, yearns for conquest.

For me, there are two games that fill me with such an urge: Alundra, and Dead Space.

Alundra has been sat in my collection for the best part of a decade. I still keep telling myself that one day I am going to sit down with it and give the game a thorough pasting. Even if it means walking through the whole thing with a gameFAQs page open next to me – something in me longs to see that game through to the end, just out of principle.

I don’t know how Alundra came to occupy this mythic status for me. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it is tough. There’s  more to it than that though, I’ve certainly conquered harder games before. I think a lot of it may be psychological.

Over the years I have started playing that game countless times. Each time I’ve had to start at the beginning again, because I’ve long forgotten what’s going on in any save file I may have of the game. Each time I’ve reached a certain point in the game and for one reason or another I’ve abandoned it again. Thanks to this procession of failures, I’ve probably built the thing up in my mind to be more than it really is. It’s just a Zelda clone after all. Albeit a very difficult Zelda clone. I’ve finished all the Zelda games – so why can’t I finish this? For now I’ll just continue to repeat my mantra – one day, when I have the time, I will finish this.

As I mentioned before, my other white whale is Dead Space. And I can tell you exactly how that game came to be such an ordeal for me. Unlike Alundra, there’s no need to analyse any kind of reasoning here. Put simply; Dead Space scares the shit out of me.

But the fact that it so deftly instills a sense of monolithic terror in me that makes me want to play it and beat it. The reason that I come close to soiling myself whenever I play Dead Space is how perfectly designed it is. It’s one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I could go into a huge amount of detail as to why, and it’d come close to me writing a review of the game. But I won’t, instead I’ll just use the one example of part of my experience with the game.

I was playing through one of the early chapters, and came to a room in the game wherein a typical action game scenario occurs. You get locked in the room, a bunch of enemies appear, you have to kill them all in order for the room to unlock. I proceed to do all that. Then, as is standard, I explore the room looking for ammo, key items, etc.

What’s important to understand is that in Dead Space a lot of attention has been paid to the design of the game, both visually and audibly. You can hear pipes rattling in the background, the occasional bang, even the sound of distant screams from time to time. Visually, there are lots of extra touches to the environment, such as places where people have written on the walls prior to meeting their untimely demise at the claw end of one of the deformed monsters that still haunt my worst nightmares.

In this particular room there was a wall covered in writing, and whilst I was exploring I came along it. I stopped to read it, dropping my guard as I get further into what’s written on the wall. All of a sudden there’s a banging noise and what sounds like a monster. I panic, I raise my gun and start looking around frantically from left to right, there’s nothing there. I gather my composure, and start exploring the room again, looking for something I might have missed, surely there was a necromorph hiding somewhere, waiting for me to drop my guard again and rip my head off.

There was no such monster, I’d just been tricked by the meticulous sound design of the game and my own fearful paranoia. And as I came to that realisation, I came to another. For that 2 minute period I had made that in-game character act exactly as I would in that kind of situation. If I were really in that room, I would’ve definitely stopped to read the writing on the wall, I would’ve dropped my guard and I would’ve certainly started waving my gun around at the first odd sound.

I’ve not experienced immersion like that in a game either before or since. I think any game that can draw me in that well needs to be completed. Almost out of respect. But also because in spite of the fear, a part of me really enjoys that game.

However, I got distracted with my dissertation, and then other games came out, and every time I’ve told myself I should go back and finish Dead Space, it just seems so not worth it because I’m going to end up feeling like a terrified little girl again.

But soon this has to change. Dead Space 2 is coming out. I’ve been watching the trailers, following the news, and it’s a game that fills me with a massive amount of excitement. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, given that it looks twice as terrifying as the original, (which itself once made me scream profanity so loud that my flatmate at the other side of the flat heard me.) But I must have it. And if I’m going to play the sequel, I definitely need to finish the original first.

Daunting as the task is, I can’t wait to experience the satisfaction of finally putting the nail in the coffin of one of the games that’s tormented me for so long.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game

With the release of this game it seems that the medium has finally come full circle, in a sense. It’s a game based on a film, which is based on a comic book, which is largely influenced by and heavily references….. you got it, video games.

This makes it kind of an odd beast – true to it’s source material the game is full of material referential to gaming and the culture that surrounds it. I find this to be rather strange, because whilst the allusions to gaming have a place within the film or the comic books, it’s almost out of place for a game to make such a big deal of the fact it is a game.

Yes, I know that I’m playing a game. I have a pad in my hand!
That’s not so much a criticism as it is an observation. After all, the game is merely reflecting its source material. But it is a thing I find rather odd. But at the same time, it’s incredibly endearing.

And that’s probably the way I’d describe the entire game. The whole experience with it is one of endearment. Although I can see this not applying to everybody. You see, Scott Pilgrim is the story of a 22 year-old, and everything about the game, and the film, (I can’t speak for the comics, haven’t read them yet.) seems geared towards appealing to people in that age bracket. As a 23 year-old I’ve squeezed out plenty of enjoyment from the game. But I could see a lot of what I’ve enjoyed about it going over the heads of younger players.

So what’s so good about it then? Well, there’s a quite prominent nostalgia factor that comes into play. The game harks back to the 8-bit and 16-bit era that 22 year old Scott would’ve grown up with if he were actually real. The game has a strong resonance with the likes of Turtles in Time, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and countless other side scrolling beat-em ups that were popular back in the day.

It’s refreshing to play something along those lines again – because, put simply, developers just don’t make these kinds of games anymore. It’s nice to go back to the simplicity of this style of game. Also, at least when you start playing it, it’s tough as nails – just like games used to be back in the 90s.

It’s got other things going for it besides tugging at my inner sense of childhood nostalgia. With 5 different characters to play through as, there’s a good bit of replay value in there, especially for a game that costs about a fiver. I also get the feeling that multiplayer on this game would be an absolute blast (something I’ve yet to confirm though).

Combat in the game is solid, you start off with a simple 2 button system of light and heavy attacks, and you gain more moves as you progress through the game. You get coins for every enemy you defeat, and those can be used to buy items to beef up your stats. It’s a simple formula – but it works.

But there are a number of things about the game that don’t work. For one, it’s a buggy mess. Menus take a ridiculous time to open, which just isn’t particularly acceptable for a game that doesn’t exactly use a lot of assets. And the game has a tendency to completely crash at some intervals.

One of my main gripes is that, aesthetic differences aside, there’s almost nothing to differentiate the different characters. Yes their moves have different animations, but they all do more or less the exact same thing. Playing as Scott doesn’t feel any different to playing as Ramona.

The lack of online co-op is another of my issues with the game. After all, it’s a 4 player game, it’s meant to be played with 3 other people, and the only way you’re able to do so is by actually getting that many people around into one place. (Although this is the perfect kind of game that’s worth getting 4 people together with a load of drinks and snacks, and making a night of it.) The only positive I can garner from the lack of any online play is that with how poorly put together the code is for offline play, online play would probably be a horrific enough experience that you’d want to scoop your eyes out with a spoon afterwards.

Despite its flaws, overall it’s a solid game that I’d fully recommend to anybody looking for a bit of nostalgic fun, or as a way to get rid of a few Microsoft points that aren’t being used. It’s a great bit of fun, and well worth the couple of quid. It doesn’t break any new ground, or do anything really impressive – but if you’re playing a side scrolling beat-em up with 16-bit graphics and find yourself disappointed by the lack of innovation, you really need to ask yourself what the hell you’re doing playing the game to begin with.

7/10