Super Meat Boy

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People have been calling Super Meat Boy ‘one of the hardest games ever made’. Over at GamestyleOne of the most underrated videogame blogging sites around, Bradley Marsh described it as “a game made by sadists, for masochists”.

With all due respect to Bradley, and to everyone else who has been focusing on the difficulty of Super Meat Boy, you’re wrong.

There’s no sadism involved. This isn’t a game designed to punish you. It’s not a game like Trials HD, where the pieces have been placed in an clever, but nearly-random order and you have to forcibly wrench a victory from the game, like taking a gun from Charlton Heston’s cold, dead hands. Super Meat Boy has been designed by geniuses. I haven’t finished it yet (I’m still stuck in the post-Halloween glut of gaming), but every single level I have played so far has been designed within an inch of its life so that there is one completely perfect run-through that can be achieved in the minimum amount of time, usually just a few seconds. It’s when you dawdle that the game gets difficult. In other words, if you aren’t playing this game with the ‘run’ button permanently held down, then you’re not playing it properly.

Finding this perfect path through the level is tricky, and for the most part, it’s a matter of trial-and-error. But at least the game is smart enough to have almost no loading times so that when you die, you instantly restart the level. Frustration never gets a foothold. And when you finally do succeed and finish the level, you’re treated to a replay, showing all of your attempts to beat the level simultaneously, a glorious jamboree of death and failure and eventual triumph.

One thing though, no-one is wrong about how good this game is. Easily the best platform game I’ve played in years. I can’t recommend it enough.

Medal of Honour

Medal of Honour reminds of the joke at the start of Annie Hall. You know, the one about the two women eating dinner at a resort, where one turns to the other and says “Boy, the food here is really terrible” and the other says “Yeah, I know, and such small portions”. Medal of Honour – EA’s entry into the ‘modern warfare’ arena – is like five hours of absolutely nothing. A ‘nothing’ with a multi-million dollar budget, so it’s a really flashy-looking nothing. Still, it’s hard not to come out of it underwhelmed.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. There is one stand-out, genuinely memorable moment in the short single-player campaign. At one point, you find yourself completely overwhelmed by enemy forces who swarm around you, gradually whittling down your supplies of ammunition. No help is coming and there doesn’t seem to be any end to the number of enemies, so your entire squad resigns itself to the fact that this is the end. It’s sort of like the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. Game over, man. It’s a pretty powerful sequence and one which is executed perfectlyCompared, say, to the epilogue of Halo: Reach, which is mechanically inconsistent with the rest of the game. You spend the first 99% of the game playing a super-powered super-soldier with recharging shields that enables him to be a sort of bullet shield. Suddenly, your super-powered super-soldier breaks down if he stubs his toe. I got that shit over and done iwth soon as I could by just throwing a grenade at my feet..

Unfortunately, the rest of the game is just a string of disappointments and missed opportunities. You jump from character to character fighting the brain-dead enemies and the brain-dead game engine which they inhabit. This is 2010. We are 10% of the way through the twenty-first century and we still have enemies that do nothing but follow their scripted path, dutifully duck in and out of cover the same way regardless of what is going on around them. Bad enough, but… do you guys know what a ‘monster closet’ is? They’re fairly common in videogames, the places where enemies appear from until the player reaches a certain point or performs a certain actionThey get their name from the fact that you’ll see thousands enemies come pouring out of a particular door, you get there and it’s barely bigger than a cupboard. Hence ‘monster closet’. The more you know.. For example, in the scene I just described, there were probably a few of these ‘monster closets’ hidden in the rocks, where the player couldn’t see the enemies spawning from, and in this section, the monster closets worked fine. If only the rest of the game had been so smooth. On more than one occasion in Medal of Honour, I apparently went off on a path that the game hadn’t anticipated, so I was greeted with the sight of watching enemies spawning out of thin air in front of me. Which would have been an amusing and completely forgivable glitch except because I hadn’t gone the direction that would otherwise ‘turn off’ the monster closet, the magically-appearing enemies never stopped coming. This didn’t stop the game auto-saving right on top of their spawn point, so that when I died, I was instantly surrounded by eight enemies firing directly at me whenever I restarted.

Frustrating bugs in a videogame are one thing, and it’s easy to pick on them and write a blog post like this that says “WAH. This bug that hardly half the players will run into has completely ruined the game for me”. I mean, Mass Effect had some of the worst bugs of any game I’ve played, but I loved that game in spite of themtowards the end, almost because of them - ah, the geometry stretching bug where something went screwy in the maths and my character’s face slowly started to explode over the course of a five-minute cut-scene. This image will forever haunt my nightmares.. Why can’t I give Medal of Honour the same freedom?

Three words: Call of Duty.

Medal of Honour has virtually no identity of its own. Almost every moment in the game is a direct copy of something that happened in one of the two Call of Duty: Modern WarfaresWhich makes me wonder how you can copy so furiously from two 10+ hour games and still only end up with a 5-hour campaign. A vehicle level? Check. A sniper level? Check. A level where you’re sneaking around a snowy mountain while guards search for you? Check. If the developers are trying to win players away from the Call of Duty camp, it’s probably not a good idea to present them with third-rate knockoffs of the game you’re so slavishly trying to imitate. It’s like an artist trying to show his talent by giving us a paint-by-numbers version of the Mona Lisa. It just doesn’t work. Unless you’re deliberately trying to present some post-modern commentary on the nature of art. I’m fairly sure that’s not what the developers of Medal of Honour were trying to do. As a player, I just find it frustrating to play a game that was aiming so low and so clearly could have been much better, had the developers been given a little more time. But, thanks to Call of Duty, that’s one thing they didn’t have. In essence, Medal of Honour’s release date was set not by how complete or how polished it was, but by the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops. EA had to release the game before then. And in a way, they were probably right. See how quickly Medal of Honour has been dropped from the conversation since Call of Duty: Black Ops came out.

I’ve no doubt that the game has done enough business to warrant a sequel, and maybe then we’ll see some real innovation and it will be something actually worth talking about. Until then, we’re left with a piss-poor jump-start of a franchise that has no idea who it’s trying to appeal to.

Mass Effect 2: Addendum

There’ll be some discussion of the ending of Mass Effect 2, so if you haven’t played that game all the way through and you like your life spoiler-free, stop reading now

After about 30 hours of playing, I finally, finally finished Mass Effect 2. And having finished it now, I’m still happy that pretty much everything I said about the game still stands. There were a couple of side-missions that were time-based: you have X number of minutes to escape from X or to stop X from happening, but these were still small, local instances, usually coming at the ends of missions. There was no sense of urgency to any the larger narrative. Take all the time you need; that person dying of space-flu or space-gonorrhoea or whatever in isn’t going anywhere. He’s in another mission. Sure, the galaxy needs saving, but - holy shit! - that Krogan hasn’t tasted sushi before. Better take care of that first!

Which is why the ending feels like such a cheap shot.

After being stung by some of my choices at the end of the first Mass Effect - where the game pulled a switcheroo and the person I actually wanted to save ended up being the person that died - I made sure that, for Mass Effect 2, I read up about the ending and what choices I should make if I wanted my characters to survive. Some might call this cheating. To this, I say: FUCK YOU. Including the first game, I’ll have spent around 60 hours playing as this character and I’m not going to leave this shit to chance again.

Anyway, the Gamefaqs entry for Mass Effect 2 includes this little warning:

CONSEQUENCE OF DELAY

When you return to the Normandy, you will have the ability to go through the Omega 4 relay in pursuit of the Collector ship. If you go on any other missions first, half the Normandy’s crew will be killed, including Yeoman Chambers.

Now, I wasn’t affected by this because, like I said, there were almost no side-missions left by the time I came to travelling through the Omega 4 relay. But still, I feel like this is unnecessarily punitive, especially since that the developers have established one rule throughout the game: that you can delay and it doesn’t matter. Why the abrupt change? Why punish players like this? Why Yeoman Chambers?!

For the record (and as I mentioned on Twitter), immediately after saving the galaxy, I jumped straight in and did the dirt on Miranda. Commander Shepard: space mutt

Side-Quests and Narrative

Almost three years on, Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock is still dangerous.

If you’ve got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you’re still all “tl;dr”, here’s the short-short version of Hocking’s argument: while the story in BioShock is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player’s actions (what Hocking calls the ‘ludonarrative’ of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free will and choice, the player actually has no choice in the game since it does not provide an option for the player to do anything but help Atlas.

The danger in Hocking’s argument comes from the way that it makes you realise how prevalent this ludonarrative disconnect is within games. It’s like the little arrow in the FedEx logo: suddenly, you can’t see anything but this dissonance.

Right now, I’m slowly playing through Mass Effect 2. I say “slowly” because, not only am I experiencing a difficulty with the underlying story and mechanics of the game (I find that the cookie-cutter structure of the missions gets a little stale after 12 hours or so), but also because the ludonarrative dissonance in Mass Effect 2 means I am not as fully absorbed in the game as I really wish I could be, so I can’t do anything but slowly chip away at it.

##The problem with Mass Effect 2

Like the majority of videogames, Mass Effect 2 is about saving the galaxy. Huge, terrifying aliens are coming to destroy all life and - surprise! - only your character can stop it. This is the ‘main quest’ of the game, and given the weight of it - the protection of all life in the galaxy - it should be your number one priority. Except there is nothing forcing you down this path. In fact, the game does the opposite; rather than forcing anything, it presents the player with an smorgasbord of ‘side quests’ and gives the player the option of how he or she wants to play the game.

Heavily influencing my playing of Mass Effect 2 is my experience playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I powered my way through the main quest of that game in the course of a couple of evenings. I completely avoided all of the side-quests or, indeed, anything that would take me from the path that would lead to me destroying all the oblivion gates and saving the world - I mean, who has time to join guilds and fight in gladiatorial arenas for sportI did actually complete the arena missions in Oblivion - one of the advantages of playing through the game the way I did was that I never got to a high enough level that the monsters were particularly difficult. The arena missions, then, were an easy way to make a lot of money in the game when there’s an evil demonic force sweeping the land? In the end, the game was fun, but after I completed it, I didn’t see much point in playing the rest of the game. The rest of the game being where everyone says the real enjoyment is to be had. In effect, I sabotaged my own experience of this game.

With this in mind, I’m doing things differently with Mass Effect 2. I’m trying to play each and every side-quest I can find. I’m scanning planets, talking to every random stranger, endorsing each and every shop on the citadel and trying to fuck just about every character I think the game will allow me to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying Mass Effect 2. These parts of the game are actually lots of fun and amazingly relaxing ways to kill a few hours. Except they’re completely at odds with the story. In most of the cut-scenes, my character shouts about how the reapers are coming and there’s no time for X - the galaxy is in danger and time is running out!

And yet, I waste hours - literally hours - scanning planets for minerals.

To make it worse, the game actually encourages this ridiculous disconnect. For example, your crew members will occasionally come to you with a problem that present new missions. If you choose to help them, completing these missions will increase their loyalty to you. When you first speak to them about these problems, there are two conversation options: “Sure, I’ll help” or “Sorry, there’s no time”. Within the context of the game, I’m left asking: why does that second choice even exist? If my hours of fucking around scanning planets has taught me anything, it’s that there is time. Lots and lots of time. Even still, if you agree to help your crew member, this mission just becomes another side-quest which you can tackle whenever you want. There’s nothing compelling you to go and deal with it right there (which is good, because in my game, Jacob’s dad has been in trouble for a couple of weeks now). Theoretically, you could say “sure, I’ll help”, completely ignore them and finish the main quest without any sort of punishment.

Within individual missions, too, there’s a lack of urgency or engagement. The game will tell you that someone is in trouble, that their life is hanging by a thread, but at the same time, the game actively encourages and rewards slow and methodical exploration. So, rather than rushing to the next area where the hostages are being held, you should first examine every nook and cranny, hack ‘datapads’, break into wall-safes, collect the ammo that has conveniently been left lying around the place. Take your time because the game, and the character who is supposedly in danger, will wait.

In my 22+ hours of playing Mass Effect 2, I have come across one - ONE - mission that was time-based and had a sense of urgency. A side-mission in which the player must stop a missile from launching within a set time limit. One mission out of maybe sixty.

I don’t mean to single out Mass Effect 2 with this complaint. Lots of other games suffer from the same problem. I finished the penultimate mission in the main quest of Fallout 3 before deciding that instead of facing the climax of that game and saving everyone, I would rather wander the wasteland with my dog and giant supermutant friend, hunting out all the side-questsUnlike Oblivion, it used to be that when you finished Fallout 3, you couldn’t go back and continue to play the game and explore the world - this was corrected in a subsequent patch. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is another example. You could rescue Zelda, or you could kick some chickens for hours and hours. In fact, it’s almost a genre staple: the RPG whose over-arching ‘main’ story is less important than the abundance of side-quests.

Other games have been more daring in their approach to the time mechanic and what it means for the narrative. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for example, has actual, time-based consequences, constantly increasing the tension in that game. Dead Rising is also built around time: the entire game takes place over the course of three days, and actions occur at certain times within that world (and, unlike BioShock, this game does give the player the option of non-participation. The player can simply sit around doing nothing, waiting for the game’s three-day timer to run out and for rescue to arrive. It’s not a great ending, but at least it’s catered for).

Having been disappointed by powering my way through Oblivion and disappointed by taking my time with Mass Effect 2, how should I tackle Dragon Age: Origins?

We Deal in Lead

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kane, an early wild west game that came out on the Commodore 64 in the mid-80s. Actually, I doubt if it even counts as a ‘game’ by today’s standards. Really it was just four mini-games - shooting birds (or rather, ‘birdies’), riding a horse to the right, a shoot out, and then riding a horse to the left. The game wasn’t particularly flashy, nor was the narrative wrapper that supposedly connected these mini-games (essentially, the plot of High Noon - “Kane” being the name of Gary Cooper’s character in that movie).

Despite the flaws, I fucking loved that game.

I loved it because I was 10, and this was a game where I could pretend to be a cowboy. And when you’re a ten year old boy, all you want to do is to be a cowboy. For me, the small numbers of actions in the game actually added to the effect. I mean, what the hell else did cowboys do but shoot things and ride horses? That was just me, though. The Spectrum magazine, Crash, criticised the game for the limited amount of things you can do in the game, saying “it would be fun if there were about 10 more sections to battle through”.

Playing through Rock Star’s Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help being reminded of Kane - one of the first games I ever played and definitely the first cowboy game I ever played - which then got me thinking about how far videogames have come. If you were to jump in a time machine and show this game to my ten-year old self (on a 60" HD LCD TV, natch), I can guarantee you I would have quite literally shit my pants.

While Kane was mostly played in static screens, with just four types of activity in the entire gameWell, two, if you want to be persnickety about the qualitative distinctions between riding left instead of right and shooting birds instead of dudes, there’s no shortage of activity in Red Dead Redemption. In my almost 35 hours of playing RDR, I never once felt bored or like I had nothing to do. There were always animals to hunt, outlaws to kill (and loot), horses to lasso and women to hogtie and place in front of a fast-approaching train. I love the amount and variety of possibilities that the game throws at the player. I’ve finished the story and I still have things to do, such as killing grizzly bears with my hunting knife.

What I love most about the Red Dead Redemption is the way it feels like a real, living world. I was always stumbling across little things, micro-stories that felt like they were happening completely independently of me and my actions. For example, while riding around Aurora Basin, hunting for bears, I spotted a man kneeling on the ground. I rode closer and saw that he was kneeling next to the body of a dead woman and bawling his eyes out. As I stood there, watching him cry, he took out a gun and shot himself in the head. I was completely stunned by this. I didn’t know what to do.

(I got off my horse and looted his body.)

I’m not particularly proud of my actions. All I’ll say is that we all have our own ways of dealing with grief and kleptomania is mine. But let’s just think about this: the amount of effort and number of man-hours put into crafting this one tiny, incidental scene in Red Dead Redemption probably outweighs the total amount of effort and number of man-hours put into the entirety of the making of Kane. And this was just a background action, something that would (apparently) happen whether I’d seen it or not. I could have missed it. I could have just as easily chosen to ride past the man without checking it out. It didn’t need to be there, but Rockstar put it in there because it fleshed out this world.

It’s easy to be jaded about these things (and I definitely felt a bit disappointed the second time I came across the suicide-man) but my goodness - we’ve really come a long way. No wonder my ten-year old self would have shit his pants.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

For a license with so much meat on its bones, it’s a little disappointing to see all the Batman games that have been made, all laid out. The majority are lazy movie tie-ins, knocked out by South Asian sweat shops for a bowl of rice per game. And it shows, you know? Check out the SNES version of Batman Forever and tell me if you think the developers had even heard of Batman when they started working on that game. “What-man? Forget that noise, Jack. Kids today love their Mortal Kombat. Give them some _Mortal Kom_Batman.”

Thank goodness, then, for Rocksteady Studios. Here are a bunch of hardcore, unrepentant Batman geeks who get it. Working very much from an “If it ain’t broke…” mentality, these guys called in the pros. Rather than trying to write their own story and ending up with some fanboy claptrap, they instead hired Paul Dini to write the story. He may not have written the book on Batman, but he certainly wrote the cartoon, as well as the truly amazing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. They also hired a lot of the main voice actors from the cartoon too, like Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin. Even ignoring the rest of the game, the story and voice-acting are pure Batman.

But, thankfully, they didn’t ignore the rest of the game. Having a great, authentic Batman story would be nothing if they didn’t completely understand what makes Batman such an interesting superhero. Apart from a few gadgets (which are all present and correct), the best thing about the character is that he’s a brick shithouse who moves with fluidity and grace. He can hide in the shadows, picking off his enemies one by one, making each remaining enemy progressively more terrified. It also means that he can handle himself when he drops into the middle of a group of thugs and decides to take them on all at once. The developers are proud of their combat engine here, even going so far as to offer a bunch of separate “challenge” modes where you fight groups of increasing numbers of enemies. Kind of like Gears of War 2’s ‘horde’ mode, but with fisticuffs. And they’re right to be proud - this game has the best combat of any game I can think of. It’s simple, it feels natural and it produces devastating, cinematic results. If there’s any film that can offer a more spectacular, perfectly choreographed fight sequence, I’d love to see it.

Okay, maybe that one sequence from Tony Jaa’s The Protector comes close.

It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. It cogs so heavily from Bioshock that it falls foul of the same criticisms that could be thrown at that game – lazy fetch-quests to artificially pad out the game’s length, inconsequential upgrades that make very little difference in the gameplay – but for all it gets wrong, it gets other things very, very right. The world is almost perfect. It’s an open world that you actually want to spend some time in. You’re encouraged to explore, and rewarded for doing so. Through the 240 ‘riddles’ hidden throughout the island, you’ll learn more about the mythology of the place, or characters that don’t actually make an appearance in this game, like Catwoman and the Penguin. British Gaming Blog nails it: “After hunting 200 god-damn pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV last year, I decided to make a pact – make them enjoyable to hunt, or I just won’t bother. Guess what? My Xbox 360 gamercard holds an achievement for solving 240 riddles in Arkham Asylum.”

I’m slightly disappointed that the game didn’t lift a little heavier from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It’s a genuinely brilliant comic that explores Batman’s own psychological state in relation to the so-called lunatics locked up in the asylum. Having read the book, I was hoping this was a theme that would pop up in the game, but it only really appears in passing. Though I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with it only being the best Batman game ever made.

Oh well.

Ghostbusters: The Videogame

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A while ago, I talked about the way that, when dealing with popular franchises, creators are often unsure of how to introduce something new so they fall back on fan service as a way of masking their insecurity. By wrapping something new in familiar clothing, they hope it makes it easier for people (especially those all-too-fickle fanboys) to accept. Or, worse still, in trying to recreate the success of the originals, they use the originals as a actual recipe. Take a dash of this situation, a pinch of that character, two heaped tablespoons of this trusted joke and - bingo! - something similar-yet-different.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is another perfect example of this. The first few levels are like playable deja vu. You start at the Sedgewick Hotel, you meet slimer and Venkman get slimed. You wreck the ballroom. Then you jet across to the Library where you meet the Librarian ghost and the whole thing ends with a fight against the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s all so very obvious and unremarkable. It kind of makes me think of my idea for creating a sequel to a movie by just taking the original movie and cheaply dubbing in the word “again” after every line (e.g. “Zed’s dead again, baby. Zed’s dead again."). Otherwise known as the Rocky II school of sequel-making. In Ghostbusters: The Videogame, the first hour is filled with lines that basically follow this setup. “He slimed me again!” “She shushed us again!” And there are far too many “Hey, remember that time…” for my liking. To quote Joni Mitchell, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!'.

But then, halfway through the library level, something special happens. You leave the confines of the movies behind. No longer tethered to ticking all the boxes for the fans, they are free to play about a more experimental storytelling palette, and the game improves dramatically. You visit the ‘extradimensional’ version of the library which had the potential to be generic and unremarkable, like Xen from Half-Life. Except with Egon and Ray nerdgasming over the walkie-talkies, it feels like something that genuinely belongs within the Ghostbusters universe. It’s completely believable and enjoyable.

After all, what are the main reasons why someone would play Ghostbusters: The Videogame, the things that separate it from other videogames? The universe and the characters. People didn’t respond to the films just because of the kick-ass theme tune. They responded because the world was interesting and the characters were entertaining in the way they behaved within this world.

With the exception of Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, the entire cast is back, lending their voices to their characters. And the whole thing has been written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, the writers of the Ghostbusters movies, so the writing even feels consistent with the movies. And there’s plenty of meat on these bones, if you want it. You’re encouraged to “scan” the environment, Metroid-style. This then pops an entry into “Tobin’s Spirit Guide”, which you can read later. Again, that’s if you want it. If you want to just shoot things and cause an assload of damage, that’s okay too.

I only have one, minor problem with the game, and that’s the fact that you play as a no-name rookie, a new addition to the Ghostbusters squad. This would be fine - I mean, I’m not demanding that I have to play as one of the original Ghostbusters (although you can in multiplayer) - except that sometimes, it feels as if you’re the only one who actually does any work. Very often, it’s up to you to fight and capture ghosts while the rest of the characters stand around spouting (admittedly funny, if slightly repetitive) one-liners. It’s a very minor quibble, and one that can almost be forgiven as a standard videogame trope.

First few levels aside, Ghostbusters: The Videogame is fan service done right.

B+

Footage of EA's Rock Band →

There aren’t enough exclamation marks in the world for just how excited this makes me.

Guitar Hero 2 and OS X

I think my previous post on Guitar Hero 2 gave some idea of how disappointed I was by this game. So why the hell did I go out and re-buy it for the Xbox 360?

Well, apart from the high-definition graphics (very important in a game like this) and the way it’s an easy 500 achievement points, there’s one very big reason why I got it: the Guitar. It plays beautifully, it’s based on an Explorer and it’s USB.

Guitar Hero X-Plorer on OS X

Naturally, I plugged it into my Macbook before it even went near the 360. OS X recognised it, but the 360 controller drivers from Pref360 didn’t work. No worries, it was only a matter of time. Well, the new version of the Pref360 drivers adds support for the Guitar Hero controller.

So now I can play Frets on Fire on my Macbook, which is fantastic. But I really want to see if this can be used as an input controller for Max/MSP or Processing. Then the fun can really begin.