Browsing all articles tagged with Games

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.

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.

falloutnewvegas

None more brown: The irradiated shit-hole of New Vegas.

How to get old people playing games? It’s the question that – for the purpose of this review – I’m going to suggest is on every game developer’s lips. You could name your game Gran Turismo, and hope that old people think it’s a SAGA holiday simulator; you could streamline your control scheme in the hope that ‘greymers’ (suck it, Pachter) are aware of the existence of bowling on anything but short grass…or you could do what they’ve done with Fallout New Vegas, which is tap into the older market’s unfettered desires, stick it on a small plastic disc and sell it for £40. Sorry, £35. (Actually, now more like £20).

As with the obvious risk of alienating their prospective audience with the word ‘New’ in the title, Obsidian’s game makes noise at loftier goals than mere pandering to the silver sofa brigade. But brush away plot, inter-mutational relationships and troubling moral dilemmas and you’re left with a simulator that involves barging into houses, opening draws and seeing what stuff they’ve got. It’s like Cash in the Attic set in an irradiated shit-hole. It’s EXACTLY what old people are interested in.

The shameless shilling starts from the opening sequence: accompanied by the crooning of some velvet-voiced 50s idol, the player starts off in a graveyard. ‘There’s a well-dressed gentleman in a smart jacket. He seems nice. But wait, something’s wrong – there are some young people with him. He pulls out a gun…BANG! We fall into a grave. It’s not quite as we expected this death business. Where’s my dog, Ronald? Oh, we’ve been rescued by a Doctor. He seems nice; like Dick van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. I like Doctors.’

From here your adventure starts, and New Vegas starts to open up like a flower – though not the kind you’d send to your sweetheart. It’s not just the locale that looks a bit weathered: the game engine is clearly showing its age and nearly buckles under the weight of its own ambitions, which would be more admirable if it attempted slightly more than basically remaking Fallout 3 with a few rusty bells and radioactive whistles. Thank God then for the writing, the most notable area where New Vegas does best its East Coast sibling.

Where Fallout 3 aimed clumsily for the heartstrings with its tale of looking for Liam Neeson among the crab people of Washington DC, New Vegas concerns itself with a more immediate and compelling story: ‘Who am I?’ And ‘If I’m so good at shooting, why was I working as a postman’? Such lofty questions are not answered overnight (nor by watching not very good Kevin Costner films, thankfully). They’re answered by exploring the landscape of New Vegas; meeting its folk; killing its irradiated beasts; stealing its shit.

The majority of your time will be spent walking over irradiated hills, mapping areas of interest like a wasteland Wainwright. Although it’s hard not to feel a little pang of sadness as you walk past yet another shell of an automobile, you soon forget when you climb a peak and find a deserted building with promises of spoils inside. You see, New Vegas takes the Hugh Hefner approach to courtship: never mind the looks, check out the wealth.

Fallout New Vegas is a huge game and its map is littered with more places to go, things to do and stuff to steal than there is in old, aka ‘now’ Vegas. Aside from the fairly compelling main storyline there are a number of side-quests that basically function as narrative rabbit holes. Deliver a message to one area and you can be given five more optional side-quests, as well as more things to look in and steal. All this is optional, but if you’re a virtual Howard Hughes then say goodbye to your friends, you’re about to bottle a lot of electronic wee-wee.

Most of New Vegas’ inhabitants want to kill you, from drug-addled Freaks and lumbering super mutants to a variety of sharp-clawed monsters. It’s not exactly a heartening place to spend time, but it also won’t be completely unfamiliar to anyone who’s explored an inner city after hours. Plus, unlike real life, you also have the immensely satisfying VATS combat system to defend yourself, which allows you to watch the results of your decisions play out in immensely satisfying slow motion.

But it’s not all plain sailing, while it may not be quite as buggy as a narcoleptic’s picnic – as some have reported, it still features a few eyebrow-raising quirks. Character’s heads get stuck in ceilings, giant lizards are embedded in rocks and you hold conversations with people whose eyes have vanished. It would be nice to imagine that the developers are dothing their fedoras to another reality defying adventure in the Nevada desert, but as far as I can recall, Hunter S. Thompson’s didn’t feature cross-dressing super mutants.

Other negatives are holdovers from Fallout 3. While it may concern itself with colourful language and adult situations, the character models and animations in New Vegas are rudimentary at best. Characters may talk of genocide, murder and rape as if they’re discussing what happened on last night’s Eastenders (and maybe they are, I haven’t seen it in ages), but the low-rent presentation makes it resemble a disturbing trilogy-capper to the immensely popular (ahem) Mannequin series of films. Similarly, attackers merely run straight at you and continue to attack until you get them, or they get you. There’s little strategy beyond choosing the right thing to hit them with.

The karma system is also a little uneven. Most people – save for perhaps, Richard Madeley – recognise that theft is wrong. Fallout New Vegas’ system of punishment for the 5-finger discount, however, seems to have been drafted in a Dickensian workhouse and then refined by The Daily Mail letters page. Let me explain; I helped murder an old woman based on hearsay (I know, I know) then confessed to her friend that I’d had a hand in her brutal demise. He basically shrugged his shoulders, so I reasoned that perhaps he wouldn’t mind if I helped myself to one of his plastic dinosaurs. After all, the place was littered with them. However, he then proceeded to beat me to death, while the decrease in karma made me about as popular as Nick Clegg strangling a dog.

But that’s the real beauty of New Vegas; it’s about creating your own stories in the wasteland, based on the consequences of your actions, intentional or otherwise. Besides, looking for realism in a world where you ‘meet’ a sex robot called ‘Fisto’ seems a bit redundant really. Fallout may have lost its looks, and on more than a few occasions turns into a doddering mess, but flashes of brilliance are so frequent that it’s easy to look past the surface, appreciate its deeper charms and remember a time when it didn’t seem so decrepit. And even if this is a last hurrah for the series, it’s not a bad way to go out really – certainly better than laying face down in an open grave.

My CODBLOPS piece has been awarded November’s Reader Review of the Month on eurogamer.net.

Editor Tom Bramwell sums it up thusly: “BOBBYLUPO is a funny guy (Editor’s note: thanks). I do feel slightly odd endorsing a piece of writing that includes what is basically an AIDS joke (it’s still too soon), but he whacks Black Ops’ Wac-A-Mole stylings firmly on the mole and his writing is ticklish as well as insightful – an enjoyable combination.”

Please click on Herve Villechaize Bobby Kotick’s (s)mug to read the full article.

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call_of_duty_black-ops

Angry man with guns or billionaire relieving himself on your grandparents?

The following review contains spoilers for Forrest Gump.

As momentous events that forever change popular culture, Modern Warfare wasn’t a bad one. I mean, it was no Pop Idol. While it did give rise to a number of imitators and also-rans, none of them were Rick Waller – though, arguably, there was an equally generous amount of content inside. And while the single player campaign was short, Infinity Ward’s game offered an intense experience made up of a number of memorably entertaining moments. Of course there was also the multiplayer, which one or two of you may have even played…

Modern Warfare’s multiplayer was a natural extension of the single player campaign, and to a certain extent, war itself. Sent out to some remote looking crap-hole that looked a bit like a trading estate in Slough, your mission was to dodge a barrage of fast moving projectiles and barbed insults spewed from the mouths of 12 year olds. Of course, in every war there’s a power-hungry despot sending the youth to die. In this case it’s Bobby Kotick, head of Activision and the nearest we have to a living incarnation of Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. Kotick’s lust for glory has seen the COD brand invading supermarkets every year, to the delight of his pockets and bemusement of any one who can remember when war was fought with less good graphics.

But in every conflict there’s a loser; in this case it’s developer, Treyarch. If Modern Warfare developers, Infinity Ward, are The Expendables (literally!) then Treyarch are more like Dad’s Army, attempting to convince the world that they don’t need gunships and night-vision scopes to fend off abusive pre-pubescent ninjas when you’ve got packs of dogs and planks of woods with nails in them. Treyarch’s legacy, until now, has been as the nearly-men of the Call of Duty franchise. If Infinity Ward are (or were) the sun, then Treyarch are on the dark side of the moon, a bit like Pink Floyd, but more like Think Floyd, Rotherham’s finest tribute act.

However, since Infinity Ward’s talent pool soon found themselves in Kotick’s shark pool, Treyarch have unwittingly found themselves in the position of being the A-Team for the COD franchise. It’s an unlikely series of events that brings to mind Forrest Gump – with attack dogs and planks of wood with nails in them. Black Ops, then is a chance for Treyarch to reunite with Jenny, metaphorically speaking. But is she (the game) destined to die of AIDS (be not very good)? Let’s find out shall we…

Black Ops closes the gap between the COD brands, getting ever closer to Modern Warfare, both stylistically and chronologically. With OTT action histrionics and near mawkish levels of personal tragedy, last year’s Modern Warfare 2 was more like a Michael Bay remake of Philadelphia than a credible trawl through the muddied morals of contemporary warfare. It also seemed to be written by someone suffering from the same short-term memory loss as Guy Pearce’s character in Memento. After tattooing ‘Airport massacre’ on his body in Felt tip Roman, he blacked out, waking to find a mysterious message scribbled on a crumpled napkin. It read: ‘Snowmobile canyon jump’.

Black Ops perfectly combines these – now expected – tropes, opening with a series of attention grabbing scenarios that leap about all over the place. While it seems like a masterstroke to forego narrative cohesion and focus on a series of random events featuring guns, ‘plosions and shouting, it turns out that Treyarch are slavishly following Infinity Ward’s equation, warts and all. Level objectives are marked with bright yellow markers; your pals have helpful words floating over their heads and you can’t really act outside of the game’s pre-scripted events. And while Treyarch may be turning the formula up to 11, it’s strange that in a story about ludicrously brave individuals saving the world with nothing but a piece of enhanced Formica, the creators show such a lack of courage in truly moving things forward.

What you’re left with is a number of levels that tick all the boxes. Being shouted at by walking testoids who use terms like “L-zee”, “Juliet Bravo” and other words you don’t understand but whose inclusion makes you feel like you’re in a proper war? Check. A top tier military unit whose combat strategy appears to be shouting loudly, walking sideways round corners but getting shot less than the equally shouty Johnny Foreigner* on the other side? Check. A series of dehumanising interactive events, which are supposed to illustrate the high stakes of war but are actually more like being kicked in the shins by an obnoxious, attention-seeking child. Check, check and check.

There are a number of entertaining set pieces within the single player campaign but you’ll probably be familiar with them if you’ve watched a film containing a gun in the past 20 years. And while 600 billion contented gamers makes for a compelling argument for leaving the series unchanged; it’s hard not to feel that the campaign portion is just the straight man, buoying on his more talented and entertaining partner.

So what of Black Ops’ Eric Morecambe? While the multiplayer is immediately familiar, sweary voices on the verge of manhood and all, there are some nice touches that show a bit more creative effort. Though, statistically, you’re likely to either be playing it while reading this, or the kind of gamer who looks upon the cover of a new Call of Duty game and sees a photo of Bobby Kotick pissing on their grandparents instead of an angry man with a gun. Either way, you already know, or you’ll probably never care.

In short: Black Ops multiplayer is a fun evolution with some of the more annoying additions removed, such as 2 minute nukes (strange for a game set in the Cold War) and an updated zombie mode, which is bound to keep you entertained until they announce how many kidneys you need to swap for the first map pack. You could argue the merits of radio controlled cars and having to actually buy your weapons (what is this, Blackwater?) but since I’ve yet to see someone mastering the battlefield with nothing but a smoke grenade and a penknife, I’m going to call it a minor win.

So where next for the series? Well since the brand appears to look like a cow covered in tits through Dr. Claw’s special money-goggles, you can bet it’s not going to leave the dairy anytime soon. Next year should see Modern Warfare 3, which will either be a case of Infinity Ward’s janitor getting his time in the sun, or being asked to bring his swimmers to a board meeting. Treyarch, meanwhile, inch ever closer to the present; in two years time we’ll likely be presented with Call of Duty: Best of the 80s, featuring a brutal interactive sequence where the player must prove his worth to a terrorist organisation by going at some mating pandas with a stolen cheese grater, accompanied by a nu-metal version of Take My Breath Away.

But what’s even more disturbing is I’ll probably still buy it; enjoy it and play it to death. It seems resistance to gaming’s biggest franchise is futile – which is a bit like war really, innit?

*It should be pointed out that the British have been added to the cannon fodder in Black Ops. Perhaps it should be renamed Call of Duty: Equal Ops in Germany, Russia and Japan?

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Robocop greatly appreciated Jimmy’s efforts.

Here’s a rule of thumb for maintaining your hardcore video gaming credentials: never invest in anything that your grandmother could beat you at. Like, for example, the Nintendo Wii, scourge of the hardcore gaming elite.

My own grandmother passed away several years ago but, as the Wii’s raison d’être seems to be in allowing old people to experience the joys of ten pin bowling without having to replace their slippers for lace-up petri dishes, I think even she has a good chance of beating me at the Wii’s most hardcore multiplayer experience: Jedward’s Pejorative Party.

I’ve so far avoided the Wii, despite the occasional flashes of gaming brilliance because I know I’d inevitably end up having to buy reams of shovel-ware for house guests who can’t work a controller with more than one button. Strangely, none of my dinner guests have ever shown much delight at watching me watch Metal Gear Solid 4, but it seems a solution could be at hand with the Playstation Move.

The Move promises to satiate the hardcore gamers’ unfulfilled desire to stand in their living room and move around like a complete prick. It also promises a more acceptable face for motion based gaming peripherals, something that seems at odds with the physical appearance of its controller: a black cone with a glowing orb at the end that, basically, looks like Robocop’s todge.

However, the controller is just the means to experience the next level of gaming right? Well, yes – unless you’re talking about Microsoft’s Kinect, which seems more like a videogame version of Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Maybe that’s why Peter Molyneux cancelled Milo? He probably came home to find the angelic little fucker floating on the ceiling, before trying to push him out of the window.

The Move’s claims to offer something a little more hardcore than the Wii means the inevitable sports compendium – Sports Champions – offers an eyebrow-raising array of lesser-known events. Alongside volleyball, archery and table tennis, you have disc golf, bocce and a gladiator type thing, which is kind of like Soul Calibur as retold by The Arsehole Theatre Group. In fact the only obscure sport they appear to have missed out is this…

Peter Duncan’s Wood-Beast Challenge – a highlight of Sports Champions 2?

Despite the slightly random sports on offer, what they’ve included is a pretty good selection, offering solid and satisfying mechanics, with the added bonus of feeling like they’re games you can master. Well, as much as getting better at virtual ‘bocce’ could be considered a bonus. But if there’s anyone out there whose life goals include “beating a racial stereotype at ping pong” then get that marker pen ready, you’re about to tick some boxes.

Among the parade of wankers that make up the “Champions” is a black man, whose interests run from hip hop to dancing, a Brazilian woman (Giselle, natch) who does capoeira and shakes her booty, an oriental chap who likes swords and electrical goods, a cowboy who likes oil and sleeping with his sister, and a Scotsman, who’d play his deep-fried bagpipes if only he could stop concentrating on not spending money.

And speaking of Connor, you’ll notice that he bears more than a passing resemblance to the world’s most dangerous chicken and lager fanatic: Raoul Moat, which adds some much needed credibility to The Star’s (mysteriously deleted) GTA Rothbury ‘story’. It also explains why ‘fishing’ and  ‘armed robbery’ didn’t make the game’s final lineup.

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Moat – enjoying Disc Golf from beyond the grave?

Despite being little more than a tech demo, in Sports Champions, the Move ably demonstrates that the nuts of bolts of ‘hardcore’ motion control are more than fit for purpose. Now all it needs is for someone to find a weightier use for Robocop’s wanger than just hurling virtual frisbees. That’s for someone with far more vision than me. In the meantime it means my dinner party guests no longer have to fear two-hour soliloquies on the nature of war after their dessert. And that’s something like a win-win.

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Dead Rising 2: Not afraid of asking the important questions.

As the old saying goes: ‘Zombies improve anything’. Look at the films they’ve enlivened with their shambling grotesqueness. Night of the Living Dead would be like a more annoying Noah Baumbach film if it weren’t for zombies turning up to eat Barbra’s brother – though I’d put money on it still being better than Margot at the Wedding.

Video games are no exception to the rule, as virtual shoplifting simulator Dead Rising 2 demonstrates. Without zombies you’d be walking around a deserted shopping centre in Las Vegas looking for things to take, which isn’t too far removed from that Michael Jackson documentary a few years back. I guess they thought having MJ in a game called Dead Rising might have been poor taste. Then again, they recently announced a Jackson MMO so who knows if taste comes into it. Maybe they realised having Martin Bashir asking you for a running commentary of your actions every few seconds would be un fun, or that you’d get bored of hearing the “I’m dancing on your stupid face, Martin” sample.

I didn’t own an X-Box when the original came out so as far as I was aware Dead Rising was the working title for Pele’s erectile dysfunction ads. I jest, the original game nearly made me buy a 360 because it looked like someone had reached into my brain and created the world’s finest game. And if it weren’t for rumours of early X-Boxes sounding like Brian Blessed bringing a mammoth off in a wind tunnel, and getting hot enough to melt the fillings in your neighbours’ teeth, I’d have made the leap a long time ago.

Dead Rising 2 offers proper zombies from days of yore, before they learnt skills like running and Krav Maga. It also offers equally old school game mechanics. It’s a game that hates you and is more than willing to wee all over the chips you tirelessly made from aspirational potatoes. Think you’ve reached a point where you can handle its many challenges? It brings out a broadly painted, psychotic Italian chef to remind you that you’re a complete pussy.

But keep chugging away at Dead Rising 2 and eventually you’ll reach a point where none of its broad racial and sexual stereotypes give you that much bother. And then the wee doth start to flow in the other direction. Of course it helps that ‘chugging away’ involves twatting zombies about the head with different sized objects and causing comic pratfalls with a variety of different substances. It presents a number of creative options that are perfectly pitched for anyone who has long-harboured dreams of running around a shopping mall, dressed in lady’s underwear, beating zombies about the face with a dildo. (You know who you are).

Dead Rising 2 is no Little Big Planet but it presents you with a number of amusing outlets to fulfil your most puerile creative desires. That is, once it’s finished beating you about the brow. At first you will find it surly and obnoxious but after a while you’ll begin to understand its bizarre logic and see a uniquely amusing character emerge. It’s a bit like John Prescott, really. John Prescott with zombies.

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“Rich? Yes. Handsome? Undoubtedly. Art? Erm…Look! A shiny thing!!!”

Just back from a brief paternity hiatus and what better time to take on an incident from Twitter that happened over a month ago? In Twitter land this is something like 65 million years ago, which makes me like a less charitable, less wealthy and less impressive Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park. And while there may not be any mind-blowing dinosaur factoids in the article below, I can still do a better Scottish accent. So suck it, Lord Attenborough.

The never-ending ‘video games as art’ debate reared its ugly and boring head recently (ahem) when Roger Ebert took to Twitter and said that they weren’t. Someone who liked them then said that they were. Someone else agreed and then Ebert said that he didn’t know and everyone took a deep breath and went back to wondering which of the trending celebrities had just died (or is that just me?) and re-tweeting 140 characters of the kind of life-affirming twaddle that should reasonably contradict sitting in front of a computer, re-tweeting life-affirming twaddle.

My own take is that art has somehow moved beyond its common definition to now basically mean a collection of useless and worthless crap that only becomes expensive when you combine the magic ingredients. Kind of like a Voltron sculpt made from dogshit that magically transforms into a platinum robot when you finish sculpting the 12th set of lion’s teeth. Or something. A bed by itself is worth exactly what someone would pay for a bed, but once Tracy Emin pays someone to wank on it, it’s worth a trillion pounds – and not because man-sap has suddenly become a precious commodity. At least as long as The Handmaid’s Tale remains a work of fiction or until Octomom reveals the secret process for turning said ingredient into a fortune.

But something is only worth what people will pay for it. So while a rich idiot may spend a fortune on a piece of crap (Voltron shape, optional), there will always be a richer idiot to sell it to. It’s like Liam Neeson said in The Phantom Menace: “There’s always a bigger fish (richer dickhead)”. Though I personally get more day-to-day usage from “Let’s get out of here before more droids (dickheads) show up.”

But I digress.

You don’t need to re-mortgage your house or sell your collection of Beatles masters to afford a video game, unless you’re one of those people who buys sealed NES carts of games that weren’t good enough to mass-produce in the first place. And if you are such a wealthy proponent of staring into the electronic middle-distance, I’m sure there’s better ways to kill the time until your cloned dinosaur eggs hatch than reading this nonsense.

Video games are art and you don’t need someone to wank over a copy of Fifa 10 to increase its artistic value (Which is a shame, because I’m sure Tiger Woods would be more than happy to oblige his EA Sports brethren). But that’s not to say that there aren’t steps that developers can take to elevate the very best video games into art.  Take Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game I recently replayed due to a perfect storm of the annual summer games drought and baby related wallet chastening.

Arkham Asylum is masterfully directed, with incredible voice work (as far as video games go) and art direction. But it’s only on the second play-through that I truly appreciated this thanks mainly to my first go being dominated by the gaming trope that’s harder to kill than the theoretical lovechild of Jason Voorhees and the Queen Mother: the collectible item.

Ever since Pac-man chomped his way through a series of scenarios involving cherries, ghosts and pills, game designers have been obsessed with players collecting things. Pac-man is absolved of blame however, as his very existence is determined by his ability to collect random crap. Plus he had a wife and child to support, and I’m sure we’ve all done far worse for our loved ones.

Super Mario is another one who’s beyond reproach. While it appears he went to the Mushroom Kingdom to woo the Princess, he seemed to spend most of the time exterminating wildlife and stealing coins. But can we really blame him? Obviously the plumbing wasn’t really working out and how else could he afford to keep his brother in green dungarees? It’s not as though they’re part of the Blue Harbour collection at M&S (Though I’m approximately 8 years away from confirming that).

So while Mario may have been the original cyber-criminal, his hand was forced, again, by the demands of his family. Batman on the other hand is different; he doesn’t have a family, so the fact that he spends a large part of Arkham Asylum crawling round darkened ventilation shafts looking for glowing question marks and chattering teeth, when he should be stopping the Joker, makes him irresponsible, if not a complete tosser. It also takes the player out of the experience, which is probably the worst crime on display, in a game about super criminals, set in a prison.

But whatever Arkham Asylum’s collectibles take away from the narrative experience they’re still one of the more seamless examples of collectibles in video gaming. I’ve spent countless hours exploring every nook and cranny of a generic futuristic warehouse looking for Wolverine’s socks or a piece of concept art that has no value whatsoever, even within a fictional world with no established laws of commerce.

Perhaps that says more about my virtual obsessive nature, but if video game designers are all about being inclusive with video games, allowing old people (the Wii), young people (Modern Warfare 2) and sexual deviants (Second Life) to have fun then is it too much to ask that they make similar concessions for those with electronic OCD?

If a protagonist’s journey could be stopped every few minutes while they chased after some glowing crap in their peripheral vision, and such actions did not compromise a project’s artistic worth, then you’d probably see Brian Sewell tackle Avatar instead of the Turner Prize in his next investigative documentary. Therefore losing video game collectibles would not only help cure mentally defunct paddle-monkeys like myself, but it might also help to elevate video games into a legitimate art form.

Then again, if we had to queue up at an abandoned power station to have a go at Ico because Charles Saatchi had bought all the remaining copies, perhaps we’re better off where we are. Maybe Roger Ebert’s opinions on video games are irrelevant? Perhaps this article has been an equal waste of time? Though conversely, this may also mean that spending hours of real time chasing virtual collectibles isn’t as worthless as I thought all those paragraphs ago. And in that case, I’m cured. Huzzah!