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cat ops

CAT OPS: “LOL. This hasn’t changed since MW1.”

I’ve enjoyed a four-year hiatus from the Call of Duty series. Ever since I shot Fidel Castro in his bedroom I figured I’ve probably seen about as much as this series can throw at me. Then I had an offer of Advance Warfare on the next generation. With promises of a 3-year development cycle (which is EXACTLY as long as the First Schleswig War lasted between Denmark and Germany – surely no coincidence?) and new generational hardware, I figured I could best the deep ennui that beset me and raise enough muster to complete what surely would be a longer and more developed campaign…

I couldn’t and it wasn’t, is the appropriately brief answer.

COD may look a little shinier; the shouting may be a bit louder and there are more angry people with accents and balaclavas to shoot on screen than ever before, but scratch the surface and you’ll see the exact same mechanics in play. For starters, you’re shouted at by so many people at once that your best bet is to ignore your teammates’ commands and just leg it for the yellow glowing circles, pressing the ‘Do Stuff’ button (Square on PS4) as you go. If you don’t do this, you’re likely to go crazy waiting for an item to start flashing yellow as your teammates start treating you like you’ve just barged into their house and crapped on their sofa.

‘Open the door, Mitchell. Mitchell, OPEN THE DOOR!’

‘Use your MAGNET GLOVES!’

‘That’ll stain. CLEAN IT UP, MITCHELL!’

When you volunteer yourself to a COD game you’re basically a recruit, surrendering your right to make your own decisions and whatever naive intentions you have of enjoying the game on your own terms. Your length of service typically lasts around 8 hours and during that time you will be abused, humiliated and ordered to perform a number of menial tasks – from opening doors to submerging a boat to avoid a missile attack(!). Towards the end it got to the point where I was just rushing towards closed doors to avoid the abuse, and because I knew my team of mercenaries were too lazy to open them themselves. Not that it helped: I still had to wait for the game to allow me to press Square and still got treated like I’d pissed on their parents.

But if the player has it bad (in relative terms!), surrendering a few hours to intense servitude then just imagine how bad the people who have to churn these games out have got it. They’re basically enslaved by the COD machine, and cursed with the mutually exclusive aims of moving the series forward but not changing a winning formula. So what they’ve done in the amusingly mis-titled Advanced Warfare is release pretty much the same game as we’ve played before, with all the hallmarks: a crap villain with zero motivation, masking a twist you can see a mile away, scenes of barely interactive brutality (quick, this guard’s asleep – grab a pillow and shoot him 5 times in the face), nuclear reactors exploding at the hands of terrorists and the usual ‘whack-a-mole’ mechanics to dispose of hundreds of heavily armed foreigners.

While I understand the developers are pretty much screwed, they still don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to introducing new aspects. For example, one level sees you journeying through a derelict city on a hover-bike. During this sequence you only have to press up on the Left stick – a task so simple I managed to persuade my cat to do it for me. Then, later on, you have to continue your hover-bike adventures in a more pressing scenario. Again, I figured you only had to press forward as the game played itself, so I nestled the controller under my cat’s paw (at this point even he was rolling his eyes in boredom) only to see my character perform a barrel roll and get stuck in a bush – before getting shouted at for messing it up. It turned out that in this moment you can actually control the bike with both sticks. And since I only have one cat – who by now was deeply bored of Advanced Warfare – I had to sigh, put my soup down and do it for myself – but not before jumping over more moving trains than an abandoned city probably should have and outrunning an exploding helicopter.

Other switch-up scenarios included a sequence where I have to identify a terrorist in a crowd. To do this, I’m told to press L2 to scan then R2 to identify. You would think that perhaps someone might have briefed this before the very important mission to find the man who would lead us to the ‘main’ terrorist (remember the twist!). It seems a little lax to assume I’d just pick it up on the job. On a base level this creates a huge disparity between the player and the avatar they’re kind of controllling, but, let’s face it, at this point no-one really gives the barest of shits. The same game gets released each year, millions of people keep buying it, so they release another the next year. Rinse and repeat. I’m not even sure what possessed me to chip in with this, since I’d leveled the same valid criticisms of Black Ops a few years ago.

I suppose as I get older, and discover more hairs sprouting on weird areas of my body, that I just want better for us as a species. We deserve more than to spend our leisure time pressing Square to open virtual doors for non-existent people who don’t care for us. We can do so much better than giving companies millions of dollars so we can endure a dead-eyed Kevin Spacey reading a script that seems to have been hastily assembled by a jingoistic chimpanzee after being exposed to 24, Lone Survivor and Guns and Ammo magazine. We need to aim higher, so much higher – if only for the sake of my cat.

Assassin's-Creed-4Assassin’s Creed 4: Pirates go Purse Shopping

I know this review is late, and we’re probably closer to the release of the next iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise than we are to launch date of Black Flag, but I’ve just bought a Playstation 4 and was holding off playing this as it looks like the only game I’m really bovved about.

Anyway, you can probably consider this piece a historical document, which seems quite apt for a series dealing with time. In fact, time is undoubtedly the over-arching theme of the Assassin’s Creed series. Each game hops swiftly through time from the Middle Ages to the birth of the America via the Renaissance like its nimble-limbed protagonists, clambering from rooftop to rooftop whilst wearing white bathrobes and hiding cutlery above their cuffs.

Time is presumably also a factor for the developers, who are tasked with introducing a brand new entry into the ‘white hooded historical murderer’ genre each year lest something terrible happen, like an eclipse of the sun, or a visitation from strange alien ghosts from the past – or whatever the series is actually ‘about’ once you move away from the historical timeframe and chat to an enormously punch-able digital facsimile of Danny Wallace.

It’s safe the say that this slavish need to have a new iteration in the hands of gamers each year has halted real development in the series. Each update has been incremental with most games being almost identical to the one before. Even in this first next-gen update you still divide your time between soaring over the rooftops like a greased up ninja with cats strapped to his feet when not struggling to climb over a small log because there’s no ‘step over small log’ animation.

Combat, too hasn’t changed. You still wait for your aggressors to waggle a sword before pressing circle and square and watching a gruesome, protracted death sequence play out. It’s an oddly disconnected experience that gels with the idea of you being a virtual participant in history, but still feels oddly discordant with the steps that have been taken to progress the series.

Following on from its introduction in part III, aka ‘Native American Wood-Trading Simulator 2012’, ship exploration is undoubtedly the biggest new ‘thing’ in part 4. This will come as some relief to those who were worried that the pirates in this iteration would spend most of their time wheeling cowhides through a forest or delivering mystical pearls of wisdom in the kind of deep monotonous voice that would send a tree to sleep.

It should, however, come as no surprise to anyone to discover that being a pirate is a barrel of laughs and manages to overcome the limitations that hinder the on-land portions of the game. Simply put, exploring the oceans is more fun than being trapped with a host of salt-caked bearded men in a small, enclosed space should be. Pretty much every pirate staple is catered for – beyond scurvy, owning a parrot and being Johnny Depp, embarrassing yourself in exchange for a new Caribbean island. You can board ships, sing shanties, dig for treasure, dive and hunt sea beasts whilst avoiding attacks from the Spanish and adverse weather conditions (not unlike a trip I took to Lanzarote in ’03 – lollers).

Back on land, however, and it’s back to the usual business. One of my most abiding memories of the Assassin’s Creed series is the fact that even the most challenging and arduous tasks can be completed by pressing a single button. Your basic aim is to navigate your avatar in to an appropriate place before pressing the ‘Fun Button’ and watching an animated sequence play out. The fact that Ubisoft now stuffs each of its games to the gills with repetitive tasks doesn’t help and that’s without considering the fact that they seem to have an unhealthy fascination with making you turn crocodiles into purses.

It’s this curtailing of fun with a single button press that has always stopped the Assassin’s Creed series from scaling the heights of greatness. It still feels like something of an accomplishment to climb a huge tower like a ninja in a white dressing gown, but when the pay-off is a single press of a button, I feel like I’m the obstacle preventing the game from reaching its full potential. Missions that involve following people so you can hear perfunctory dialogue that advances the plot are equally familiar and even less fun.

On water it’s a different story, with ship controls and the mechanics of piracy being simple, fun and intuitive. There are odd quirks when it comes to letting go of the wheel and engaging in hand to hand combat, but it’s forgivable when the returns in amusement are so great. The trading element has also been improved and is much better suited to the life of a pirate than it was to the life of whatever he was called in the last game.

Thankfully, sea-based fun is the abiding memory I’m going to take from Black Flag, but that’s conditional on at least one of this year’s fourteen Assassin’s Creed games making genuine advances in game-play. If they can avoid me accidentally taking a few steps up a non-interactive tree whilst supposedly in pursuit of someone from history who needs ventilating then I’ll consider getting my next review out with a little more haste. Until then, I’ll probably make a few more journeys upon the seas with my smelly bearded compatriots singing heartily.

Altogether now,

To me, Way-ay-ay Yah!
We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!
To me, Way-ay-ay Yah!
We’ll all drink brandy and gin!
  

 

 

 

 

Sorry it’s been so quiet over here of late; I’ve been working on a few articles for a new gaming site called VoxelArcade. The site aims to take an honest look at videogaming without having to worry about where the next pile of Doritos and Mountain Dew is coming from. Unless of course, it’s a success then I hope to be swimming in the stuff!

Anyway, please take a look / leave a comment / share because there’s already some great stuff on there, and I’ll be back on here as soon as I have something to complain talk about.

Haunted by the tepid fan response to what should have been his technological masterwork: Metal Gear Solid 2, Kojima san stripped off his clothes and went to live in Miyashita Park, where he existed on a diet of bin contents and frogs. “I’ll show them that I don’t need strangely attractive lady-men, high-tech ninjas and dubious tales of AI, genetic memory and high-tech super-secret cabals controlling the world to tell my stories,” was probably Kojima’s response to this possible scenario. However, his grand message took a couple more years to formulate…

Now comfortable with the technical aspects of the PS2, Kojima blindsided his critics by telling an uncharacteristically straightforward tale in Metal Gear Solid 3 with an equally surprising amount of emotional complexity. To placate the disappointed fan-boys he also placed the completely heterosexual Snake at the forefront, whilst installing a very deep and rewarding set of survivalist mechanics and wrapping the whole shebang in a delightfully tongue in cheek James Bond circa-1960s aesthetic. He also raised playground titters by calling it ‘Snake Eater’. And doth, it came to pass that, in taming his wilder impulses, Kojima created his true masterwork.

My first run-through of MGS3 took place upon its initial release, way back in 2005. And while I enjoyed it I held firm in my belief that part 2 was largely superior. The new iteration was too fiddly, with too many low-fi gadgets that failed to identify the many dangers surrounding you. Though perhaps your greatest enemy was the ineffectual camera system – a remnant of part 2 that didn’t really work with the new expansive areas. I worked my way through, enjoying each part but never really loving it. But, ever mindful of reasonable criticism, Kojima soon re-released the game with a camera system that was as loose as the villain’s sexual preferences, and it is this version that features on the HD re-release.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the difference is like night and day. When you finally get used to the unintuitive control scheme you’re in a position to make greater use of the environment and more ready to assume the mantle of ‘Big Boss’, instead of being a panicky half-naked man eating frogs in a bush. The series’ stylistic ‘gamey’ hallmarks help to conceal its age, as does the fact that, bar a few low-res textures, it still looks bleeding gorgeous.

Each area is in itself a mini-playground with numerous ways to make your way through. It’s gaming at its most refined, and even though the plot is entirely linear, each play-through yields a different story. Some may prefer to camouflage themselves and creep up on unsuspecting men from the bushes, before grabbing them and injecting a dart in their bottoms, while others prefer sabotaging food and weapon supplies before grabbing unsuspecting men and injecting a dart in their bottoms. There are plenty of individual choices to make with the single unifying factor that most are fairly inappropriate and involve tranquilisers and men’s bottoms.

With some of MG2’s flourishes toned down you’re also allowed to remember how clever and creative Kojima is without also having to worry about his mental well-being. There are tons of playful surprises and a number of action set pieces that would make any other game memorable. The major difference is MG3 is almost entirely made from them. There’s an encounter beyond the grave, the world’s longest ladder climb, some Bond-esque infiltration and what is often regarded as the series highlight: a protracted sniper battle against The End.

This measured duel against an Uncle Albert lookalike is one of the main reasons this second installment of my Metal Gearathon took so long to produce. I went through this protracted sequence three times in order to try and get his camouflage which, in the cold light of day, seems a little excessive for a pair of weathered mossy grumps. Anyway, after three failed attempts I put down my controller and resumed my life, which currently involves working on a long-form story (or whatever you might call a book these days), my day job and a few trips to the cinema. During this time the duel with my liver-spotted nemesis was put to the back of my mind. And when I finally resumed my duties, The End had expired through natural causes, and I felt slightly guilty.

While Kojima has the ability to harness technology in new and unique ways, he seems equally obsessed with the inherent danger of overreliance on things that take batteries and make bleeping noises. Like the duel with The End – and a large thematic portion of the Metal Gear saga – these messages often break the fourth wall, though not in entirely welcome ways. For example, each iteration of the Metal Gear series on a new platform tends to turn into a slightly overblown lecture on how the advancement of technology negatively impacts on humanity. I often take this as Kojima’s frustration of having to rely on technology to convey his ideas and tell his stories. In essence, he’s as trapped by machines as his characters.

It’s interesting that when not encountering a new system Kojima’s games tend to be far more playful, streamlined and enjoyable. It’s like he frees himself when he understands the technical limitations and can concentrate on applying his ideas.   Unlike Metal Gears 2 and 4 there’s no clumsy arrival of ‘deus-ex nanomachina’ in the eleventh hour to explain away the series’ eccentricities. It’s a relatively taut tale, told incredibly effectively. And by cutting back on plot twists, it also allows for a more complex character tale to unfold. In MGS3, you’re essentially playing as a villain, but it makes a great effort in humanising him, which is something of a double win, since he’s a bit of a perv, has a mullet and is called ‘Snake’.

I’m going to continue my quest into uncharted territory with Snake’s continued adventures in Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker, so you can probably come back sometime next year for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

metal-gear-2

A tough sell: Metal Gear’s ‘hero’ in action.

 

Ever since the infamous debut trailer offended the sensibilities of scores of peace-loving watermelons around the world, Metal Gear Solid 2 became an event that simultaneously solidified (editor’s note: hurr) the Playstation 2’s market dominance and – thanks to its lofty ambitions and grandiose scale – suggested videogames could tell a bombastic and unrealistic tale just as effectively as Hollywood. But during this elongated pre-release the series’ cheeky mastermind, Hideo Kojima played his cards very close to his chest, only showcasing events – and digital fruit – from the first part of the game. When MGS2 finally came out, it was revealed that he’d played a switch and bait with the audience: fan favourite Dave ‘Solid’ Snake was replaced by a peroxide lady-man called Raiden and the majority of the game took place on an oil rig: forever known as places where nothing interesting ever happens.

With hindsight and greater familiarity with Kojima’s work, the ‘twist’ in Metal Gear Solid 2 is far easier to see. For someone obsessed with freedom and creative interactivity, it’s always been a little perplexing to find that Kojima is equally preoccupied with taking the player out of the equation and presenting reams of storytelling through barely interactive cut-scenes and CODEC chats. But whatever contradictions are apparent in the man’s work he has a definitive idea of how his story should progress and by telling the majority of MGS2 through the eyes of Raiden, he can tell the tale, and exhibit the selfless heroism of true star Solid Snake, without inviting the player to fuck it up.

This works on paper, but within minutes of meeting Snake – or the mysterious ‘Iroquois Pliskin’, who looks just like Snake and has the same voice-actor – the formerly stoic mullet-bearing warrior is worryingly eager to bond with pretty boy, Raiden. After a few moments’ exposition discussion he then passes out. Kojima’s attempt at presenting a paternal role-model falls at the first hurdle; Snake’s more like a drunken uncle on Christmas day, clumsily attempting to bond before passing out and spending the rest of the day loudly flatulating on the sofa. Later, Snake sends us off the complete the mission while he hangs around a broken helicopter for a bit, eventually showing up to fly around while we take down a harrier with a missile launcher.

Kojima’s over-ambition may trip him up a little but the story is so complex that it barely matters. After the hundredth twist you could be controlling a Cornish pasty for the way your actions affect the story. In fact, the reveal that you’re actually a regional based pastry snack made of meat and vegetables is one of the few narrative threads not yet woven by Kojima, perhaps he’s saving that for the forthcoming ‘Project Ogre’. Anyway, I never really understood the upset Metal Gear fans had at MGS2’s switcheroo: they derided Raiden for being silly and unrealistic while pining for a man dressed in skin-tight spandex called Snake. Then again, I’m probably wasting my time looking for logic. Maybe they were controlled by nanomachines, or errant AI? Maybe this isn’t even real? We haven’t met, after all, have we?

These twisting flights of fancy are what makes Metal Gear Solid, and part 2 in particular, so great for me. The basic premise is a hostage scenario in an isolated area but the execution is like an Elseworld, where Ken Russell made Die Hard. You never know what’s going to come next: there are vampires, giant fat men on rollerblades, a villain who’s apparently possessed by the arm of the hero’s dead brother, giant robots, some stuff about AI and the unique opportunity to get pissed on by a terrorist, slip on some seagull crap and have the President of the United States awkwardly grab your penis. It’s a stew of mentalism created by one of the few remaining unique voices in videogames, one who still holds enough sway to package the unfettered ideas in his head and have them sell by the metric bumload.

That’s not to say that the fan complaints didn’t have some effect on Kojima. He later went back and appeased the Snake-heads by offering a bunch of self-contained missions that show what Dave got up to while you’re fending off the amorous advances of the Leader of the Free World. And surprisingly, this didn’t just involve hiding in a bathroom stall with a few copies of FHM and a hollowed-out watermelon. Stripped of incessant CODEC chatter and cut-scenes these little missions offer a pared down and refined display of Metal Gear’s engaging stealth mechanics. The missions may amount to little more than ‘go here and pick up this’ but they’re as compelling as ever, and I must admit, it is pretty cool to control ‘Dave’ on the world’s most exciting oil rig.

The punishing controls may be a relic from a time when games wouldn’t look you in the eye, let alone hold your hand, but the creativity and clean art style of Metal Gear Solid 2 still hold up pretty darn well. It may be crazy, overblown and long-winded but it’s perhaps the last time Hideo Kojima created a game in a bubble, completely unaffected by fan feedback and market demands. And that’s as refreshing today as it was in 2001.

I’m currently sneaking my way through the Metal Gear Solid HD collection. Next up: the provocatively titled, oft-regarded highlight of the series, ‘Snake Eater’

Also published here.

la-noire-phelps

Cole Phelps: super-cop and part-time tour guide.

Despite learning some interesting facts about life in 1940s Los Angeles, such as no men were ever murdered, and most murder suspects had tiny feet, the meat of Rockstar games’ police-em-up, LA NOIRE is in its interrogation scenes. A bit like how the first 30 minutes of the A-Team were contrived to lock them in a garage with some watermelons and a combine harvester, each section in LA NOIRE is designed to get you in a darkened room with a semi-recognisable actor.

There’s not much to be said for the rest of it; the virtual recreation of LA makes for a glossy and beautiful locale to explore, but it’s really something of an empty shell (there’s probably an interesting point to be explored here, but it requires someone on a higher rung of the intellectual ladder to make it, so unless they drop something, I’ll move on). In fact the world on display is so lifeless that it only really serves to undermine the steps LA NOIRE takes in presenting itself as serious adult entertainment.

For example, Detective Cole Phelp’s leisure time appears to involve stealing cars and taking himself on a sightseeing tour of the city – earning ‘Detective Points’ for driving past notable landmarks. Similarly, a frantic chase after a suspect can often result in quite a large fine if you happen to run over several innocent citizens. Non-player character lines are repeated to such an extent that it feels like you’re in a virtual recreation of Groundhog Day, as opposed to Chinatown.

It’s clear that the interrogations are where the developers put most of their resources, something that’s all but confirmed by the pre-release hype. And while the facial animations are undeniably impressive, the biggest disappointment is in the performances themselves – which is perhaps a backhanded compliment to the strides LA NOIRE takes to bring itself in-line with cinematic entertainment. The problem is that the competent performances take a back seat to the game mechanic, which requires pantomime levels of subtlety and nuance to enable the player to ‘read’ the characters.

Take a look…

la_noire_interrogation

You’re engaged in an interrogation with someone who was in the pilot of Lost but found more success in the series Heroes, before it became crap.  You’re listening to what he has to say but, like most people in LA NOIRE, he’s already run away from you, his tiny feet propelling him down narrow alleys like a plaid-clad gazelle. You check your notebook for contradictory evidence and then he pulls this shit on you…

la_noire_interrogation-gandhi-copy

Now, is he telling the truth? Judging from his expression you think ‘probably’, but the next question prompts this expression…

la_noire_interrogation-blaircopy

For some reason you suspect he’s lying but where’s the evidence, Detective? Time for another question…

la_noire_interrogation-hitlercopy

BAM! You have the evidence that the game requires you to use. Welcome to jail, ‘scheisse-vogel’.

/Mild trolling.

It’s not a complete game breaker but the facial animations are about as subtle as a hippo driving a flaming steamroller into a fireworks factory. As mentioned, it may be to the game’s credit that the biggest flaws are more to do with the direction of its performances than any kind of game mechanic (the repetitive ‘wash, rinse repeat’ detective work may be a flaw, but perhaps that’s what police work is actually like?) but it’s disappointing to find out you’re engaging in an experience that’s more like Brian DePalma’s take on The Black Dahlia than Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of LA Confidential. The earlier Heavy Rain may have been more like a top-shelf erotic thriller, but it took bolder steps and the pay-off was a game and narrative that was infinitely more engaging and surprising.

It’s possible for games to tell more mature and engaging stories without the need to slavishly follow a template established by other media. Red Dead Redemption is a pretty good example: it told an engaging tale while embracing the fact it was a videogame and did so without hampering the players’ ability to plough their own furrow. Perhaps if LA NOIRE didn’t run away from its true nature – like a TV actor sprinting down a back alley – we would have seen something truly special. It’s a surprising step backwards from Rockstar games, so let’s hope the recently announced GTA V take two-steps forward. Their track record should be more than enough to keep virtual notebooks in pockets.

mortal_kombat

The acceptable face of violent decapitation.

The existence and commercial acceptance of Portal 2, Heavy Rain and LA Noire suggests that we’re entering a brave new world of electronic storytelling, where journeys amuse, surprise and delight in equal measure, and our decisions are informed by morality and characterised by more shades of grey than the lost episode of 24 that featured Kilroy airing his scrotum during an alien invasion in the centre of Manchester.

LA Noire’s acceptance to the Tribeca Film Festival may have had the faint whiff of PR tokenism, but it also shows that the lines between both art forms are likely to converge over the next few years, with cinema embracing the young upstart to prove its future offers far more than plastic glasses and blue cat-aliens, and games returning the favour to gain more artistic legitimacy. And then there’s Mortal Kombat, happy to sit at the back of the class and throw rubbers at the smart kids’ heads while they’re busy earning respect for our hobby.

Though Mortal Kombat is no stranger to experimentation; it’s nearly 20 years old and has spent a large part of its teens trying new things that both failed and were ultimately fairly embarrassing. But hey, we’ve all been there. And if your teenage failures were witnessed by millions of adolescents – the demographic most likely to not let you forget – you’d probably be a little bit angry too. So Mortal Kombat 2011 aims to rewrite the rules, not by refining a system of combat that was never the most sophisticated in the first place, but by embracing its coarse charms, smashing your face in with ‘kontent’ and spelling things inkorrectly.

By pitting the kind of generic martial artists you’d normally find generously distributed on the bottom shelves of a video shop against the kind of creatures you’d find on Napoleon Dynamite’s schoolbook, Mortal Kombat was obviously a product of its time. But the new iteration’s greatest strength is resisting the urge to forego its fantasy elements in pursuit of realism. So you won’t find Goro working as a bus driver, or Kano played by Danny Dyer. Instead it offers a compendium of violent brutes, robot ninjas, scantily clad ladies and ugly people with four-arms beating the crap out of each other in two-dimensions. And it does so wonderfully.

As unlikely as it may sound for a fighting game, the story mode is Mortal Kombat’s most compelling element, condensing the narrative of the first 3 games into an enjoyably ridiculous soap opera that intersects every violent bout with wilfully cheesy dialogue and ridiculous plot twists. In fact the levels of treachery and backstabbing surrounding the tournament are so ridiculous that Mortal Kombat’s story mode is arguably a more accurate FIFA game than FIFA ever could be, with Shao Khan and Shang Tsung filling the roles of Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner, respectively. And of course there’s Goro, who’s like a more socially advanced Wayne Rooney.

The Mortal Kombat story mode is generously long. In fact by the time you’ve finished, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to spend another second ripping people’s heads off and vomiting down their necks. Not that I found the fatalaties all that compelling – my fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be and the graphical fidelity on display actually made me feel quite bad about performing them. But anyway, that’s Mortal Kombat in a nutshell: a wealth of riches wrapped up in a deceptively simple outer-casing – a bit like an aggressive Karl Pilkington. And even if you don’t move beyond the basic arcade mode, you’ll still find a suitably authentic Mortal Kombat experience that’s been lovingly updated to please those who remember ‘ABACABB’ and the yoof of today, who probably recognise the aforementioned collection of letters as the correct way to recite the alphabet.

Alongside arcade and story, there’s a Challenge Tower, which consists of 300 tasks, including needlework and pet grooming. Just kidding, of course it involves ripping people’s arms off before the timer runs out and shooting zombies with missiles, that kind of stuff. Each challenge unlocks ‘Koins’, (natch), which can be redeemed in the Krypt (also natch) for fatalaties, violent pictures and new togs for your Kombatants (um, yeah).

Despite the detail involved you still get the impression that game play was at the forefront of this reinvention – and they’ve actually gone for a ‘less is more’ approach. So there are no swords, side-steps or superheroes. Though if you’re really desperate for a multimedia crossover then one of the world’s most famous deceased child molesters is available for download (don’t get your hopes up, Ready 2 Rumble fans). Combat is meaty and immensely satisfying and the moves of yore are updated and replicated perfectly – alongside some new additions like Super Meters, which seem to be de-rigueur for the modern fighter.

There’s not a lot to complain about with the new iteration of Mortal Kombat. Sure, it’s cheesy, and stupid, but after years spent in denial it has finally realised that these are the things that made it great in the first place – and it’s now embracing them with all four arms. It’s never going to be a brain surgeon, or a nobel-prize winner, but it would make a fine plumber. And there’s no shame in that.

My Killzone 3 review is April’s Eurogamer Reader Review of the month. EG’s Ellie Gibson had this to say:

“BOBBYLUPO won out…not just because he managed to get the word “priapism” AND a nob gag in the first few paragraphs. His review rattles along, packed with sharp observations, smart comparisons and bold statements. Also: “toss-pipes”.”

So, never underestimate the power of a well-placed nob gag. If you can find him, please click on the pic of the world’s least succesful ninja to read the article.

shinobi

jack

Killzone 3: a script worse than this.

There’s a bit in Apocalypse Now when, after a fleet of helicopters blow the shit out of a Vietnamese village to the sound of Ride of the Valkyries, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard exits a helicopter and crouches down, taking a respite from the vagaries of war. There he meets the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppolla, tongue wedged in bearded cheek, playing a TV documentarian, but also kind of playing himself, encouraging Sheen to get back in the fight.

This, by way of the protective casing that protects a nut, is Killzone 3: a lively, noisy, visually resplendent trudge through an intergalactic war that practically begs you to stop looking for its seams and instead lay back and surrender to its cacophony of high-octane balletics and knuckle-headed priapism. But we don’t get a virtual Francis Ford Coppolla pleading with us in Killzone 3, we get a giant mechanical spider that fires rockets, a large land-based ship that appears to be made from chainsaws and a fleet of flying troop carriers that – throughout the campaign’s brief running time – support more cocks than a strumpet’s bedpost.

But if the visual aspect of Killzone 3 is arranged by Coppolla at the peak of his directorial powers then, unfortunately, the story is coordinated by the director of Jack, a film where horrors were conveyed in a less spectacular fashion: a 10 year old boy cursed with the body of Robin Williams. It would be apt to think that you’re looking through rose tinted glasses but Killzone 2 shared many elements with its follow-up – it was another brief one-note tour through an intergalactic dump and featured, in Rico, one of the most punchable fictional characters in virtual existence – and still, in my very humble opinion, rose above the sum of its parts to become one of the most enjoyable first person shooters in recent years.

Sure, in the grand scheme of things Killzone 2 was about as imaginative as a BBC drama but its mechanics were solid and its campaign was consistently believable – at least within the parameters of the universe it established. But whatever criticism was levelled at Killzone 2, on the evidence of part 3, it’s obvious that those regarding its looks have stuck in the developers’ minds. So instead of a nightmarish tour through a dusty, wind-swept rock, we get to visit other areas that appear to have been pulled out of the ‘Obvious Ideas’ drawer, such as a bit with snow and a jungle that – through its spaghetti plants – features the least convincing display of stealth since Shinobi proudly declared himself the world’s least successful ninja.

Of course you can pretty much rebuff any criticism levelled at the story of a game called ‘Killzone’ because, let’s face it, it could equally be called ‘Space Nazis Must Die’ and the only compromise in its mission statement would be one of brevity. But for those who could ignore the previous game’s shortcomings, it’s a little annoying that they didn’t bother to present a more compelling story, or make the characters more likable, short of making Rico less of a dick and taking scissors to some of the salty language.

So what you’re left with is essentially a simulation of the world’s worst package holiday: you take a tour of an exotic location with a bunch of people you’d avoid in your normal life and when you arrive at your destination you meet a bunch of surly locals who’ve put all their resources into developing weapons to explode you. I’ve heard theories that the developers are taking a Starship Troopers approach with Killzone: using sci-fi to skewer gung-ho imperialism but that’s just bollocks really isn’t it. Equally unlikely is the idea that you’re playing as the villain, as Killzone 3 presents the opposing force as an even more reprehensible bunch of toss-pipes.

If Killzone 3 is an example of anything, it’s rampant ‘sequelitis’ – something that plunges to such new levels of uninspired mediocrity that the creation of a new term is warranted. Stuff is just thrown at you for the sake of it with no other thought except giving you something new to shoot. Of course multi-player is often the saviour of the modern FPS – allowing for any number of demi-bottomed single-player campaigns to be forgiven, providing the mechanics are solid enough to satisfy when you’re getting shot at by potty-mouthed teens from around the globe. Sadly, I found getting shot at by potty mouthed teens on Killzone 3 to be largely un-enjoyable.

This is where I should write a conclusion, but, like Killzone, I’m not very good with endings so I think I’ll just stop here and ask you to insert a fairly pedestrian cliffhanger of your choice.

top-darts

There was a time when he would have dragged that board back to his cave and eaten it.

Darts gets relatively short shrift in the world of contemporary sports. But was it always this way? Presumably there was a point in human history when the ability to throw a pointy thing with accuracy was more useful than being able to kick an inflatable bladder and fall over convincingly. However, now we’re able to pick up edible experiments involving bum-holes, eyelids and breadcrumbs on the way home from work, such skills have fallen by they wayside. Darts players should be worshipped as Gods – and not just at the Lakeside Centre. Instead they’re more like the hypothetical punch line to a joke involving the components “not”, “what’s” “sports” and “?”.

Top Darts for the Playstation Move is an interesting contradiction (bear with me): on one hand the developers clearly love the game, and take it to an appropriately grandiose level. Or several, in fact. Along with the de-rigueur Irish bar, you get to step up to the oche in what appears to a Triad boss’ office, the set of Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl video and the Illuminati’s chill out room. On the other hand, however, they are also clearly aware of the sport’s less glamorous reality of nylon shirts, pork scratchings and Elizabeth Duke jewellery, and pepper the game accordingly. The most notable example of this is probably the commentary, which is about as funny as a leprous Chuckle Brother. I guarantee turning  off will become second nature after calibrating the controller.

Thankfully, the mechanics of Top Darts are somewhat more successful. Line up your shot by holding down the button with the squiggle on it before moving the controller back and releasing it on the ‘throw’. As with real darts, your speed dictates the height of the shot. And while the reticule seems overly sensitive on the default view, on most difficulty levels you can zoom in with the X button, which makes it easier, if not more realistic. To combat this, you can always hold the controller above shoulder level, which isn’t essential, but helps you accomplish your goals – especially if they include ‘Looking like a mental’.

After a few throws you gradually begin to understand the mechanics and make most of your shots land where you want. To aid your transition into Robo-Bristow, your previous shot is marked on the reticule, allowing you to alter your next shot accordingly. Obviously it’s not the same as the real thing, but it’s a respectable approximation and more importantly, fun. The fact you don’t have to worry about putting a hole in the village idiot is also a bit of a bonus – but I accept, your local pub may vary.

Unfortunately when you move up the levels on single player things get slightly more erratic. The problem will be obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the game: the Move controller just isn’t that similar to a dart, and, without the game’s assistance, you’re left flailing. It doesn’t help that on anything above silver level, your opponents suddenly turn into plaid shirted ninjas. It’s like stepping up to the oche to take on the bastard lovechild of Bobby George and Stretch Armstrong, armed with only a cucumber and a blindfold.

On any of the more advanced levels it becomes hard to get a handle on the controls and progression becomes more a case of luck than skill – which is a bit too much like real life for my liking. You could always play one of the many games of multiplayer, which gives you all the same handicap. But if you wanted to play a social game of darts with your pals, you’d be better off going down the pub, for a number of different reasons.

It is possible that some players may be able to pick up the controller and throw darts instead of large vegetables. It’s also fair to say that there are no problems with the game that can’t be fixed with a more forgiving update. In all other areas the game excels, especially for a downloadable title. The presentation is surprisingly good and while its claim of being the ‘World’s first 1080p darts game’ seems about as impressive as someone demonstrating an ornate suit they’ve just had made for a mouse, it does look very nice.

Along with a variety of sparkling rooms, in which to throw pointy things at a number of different targets, there are some nice visual touches and a welcome level of attention to detail on display. And while it’s not going to win any awards for breaking new ground, it has a level of visual fidelity and care far greater than you might be used to from a downloadable title. There’s also a fair amount of content included.

You can play in cups and leagues with 1 to 8 human players spanning 4 separate divisions. There are also a number of separate game types for one-off games, including variations on classic rules, High Score, Around the Clock, Noughts and Crosses, and Cricket, which is a darts game widely played in America, and therefore just not cricket. At present there is no online multiplayer, which is a bit of an oversight, but it’s not the only PSN title guilty of that. Although those lucky enough to own two Move controllers and one friend can take their shots at the same time.

Top Darts is a fun, well-presented game with a generous amount of single and multiplayer content and some fun options for customisation. Move into higher levels on single player, however, and you may find it a virtual exercise in genuine frustration. You could argue that the passage of time has dulled our ability to throw sharp pointy objects with accuracy, but, in truth, it probably comes down to the fact that motion controllers just aren’t that much like darts. And it’s not just the village idiot who’s a little bit disappointed by that.