Friday, 16 October 2009

Halo 3: ODST review - No Chief, no soul

Offering a different take on the war between Humans and The Covenant, I felt that Halo 3: ODST squandered its opportunity to tell a deep and rewarding tale away from the shackles of Master Chief. Using flashbacks as I crept around the ruined streets of New Mombasa felt like a sound concept, but the over familiar mission-style and poor delivery of the story sucked the life out of this Halo game.

My appreciation of the Halo games and their universe has always radically swung between adoration and complete apathy. I wrote not too long ago about what makes the world of Halo so transfixing for its huge number of its fans - me included. What I've come to realise is that I'm fascinated by the fiction of the Halo universe but less so than the actual games. But Halo 3: ODST offered a little twist to the previous releases by taking a hub-world approach to its level design and a narrative that moved back and forth through time.

Unfortunately ODST still felt constricted by the familiar mechanics all the Halo games had stuck to previously. This was nowhere more apparent than in the first half of the game with its brief flashback missions that were never meaty enough to get into. The hub-world should have been where I found the most meaning from this game. Skulking around New Mombasa and seeing the effects of the devastating Covenant attack is an opportunity to show the darker side of the Halo story. But where I expected tragedy and death to be on display, I only found boredom and loneliness. I really understand and appreciate the style ODST went for but these solo sections became incredibly tedious and the frequent Covenant encounters did little to add any other feeling than annoyance.

What was also an effort was getting used to playing as a mere Orbital Shock Drop Trooper, without any of the regenerating shields, superhuman strength and dual wielding abilities of the Master Chief. The tension of being a vulnerable human soldier fighting against the odds was effectively conveyed, but instead of being a positive experience I was frustrated by what the game wasn't letting me be. I felt neutered and constricted by not being a Spartan and the situations the game put me in felt more contrived than the authentic night crawl through a bombed out city Halo ODST wanted to be.

That same sentiment carried over into the story to begin with. The fragmented, flashback narrative was an awesome concept and one I couldn't wait to experience myself. In reality though, the first missions away from the Mombasa hub-world are weak and the characters of the squad are generic at best. No-one has a memorable personality and the celebrity voices (and likenesses) feel like complete nerd-service rather than effective story-telling devices.

So what the reason for this lack of connection or soul? Well, it goes against everything I usually consider when it comes to story in games, but the technical level of visuals and animation conspire to make the environments and characters feel completely unreal and, well 'videogamey'. I think its the tendency to take things slower in the hub-world that really highlights the limitations in ODST's technology. New Mombasa doesn't look or feel like a ruined city - it looks and feels like an artificial creation displayed on the screen.

This is, of course, the same visual style that Halo 3 used to great effect two years previously, but I believe the pacing of that game was so much better and suited to its universe. The corridor-shooting, with overpowered strength, shields and weapons pulled me along so quickly I didn't have time to see the technical flaws. Fortunately for ODST, the game picks up in the latter half, pulling together its narrative threads and reaching a satisfying ending that makes it worthy of the Halo name.

But with this change in quality, the heart and soul of the game evaporates completely. Yes it turns into a good shooter and hits all the Halo buttons the enthusiasts will enjoy, but the chance to portray Earth in this devastated and occupied state has gone. I had hopes that ODST would show a far more human side to the conflict with the Covenant than any other game had done before. Whilst the audio logs of Sadie and her quest to find her father give an interesting and sad perspective of the attack on New Mombasa, they feel too distant and too removed from the action to carry any powerful meaning.

Halo 3: ODST is by no means a failure for the series. Perhaps I had put too much hope into its release or expected a level of narrative that Halo games are simply incapable of. Either way, the fascinating concept was ultimately let down by its unbalanced execution that left me feeling too bored and apathetic to care for its characters. When those character include half the cast of my favourite sci-fi series, Firefly, then I know the soul of the game has gone.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Getting my emotion on - with Big Red Potion

Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to be a guest on one of my favourite podcasts - Big Red Potion. Unlike so many gaming podcasts Big Red Potion takes a single topic or question and devotes an entire show to it. This week the erudite and well-dressed hosts, Sinan Kubba and Joe DeLia (I'll leave you to guess which one is well dressed) set the question of 'What was your most emotional game, or game-related moment'.

I was joined by Paul Rooney, a friend of mine from The Gamer Scene community who's also an extremely talented artist. But the biggest guest was Kellee Santiago, the President of ThatGameCompany, responsible for such awesome works as Flow and Flower on the Playstation Network.

We talked for well over an hour on our chosen moments and it was a truly awesome experience to have a conversation with such incredibly interesting and intelligent personalities. Usually I'm quite modest about my audio appearances - simply because they've been awful in the past - but this one felt so much better and I hope it sounds as interesting as it was to record.

Both Kellee and Paul had some really unique moments they talked about and it goes to show that gaming has, and always was, a vibrant medium to elicit such a range of personal moments.

Big Red Potion #26 can be found here and I thoroughly recommend subscribing as each episode has great guests and some fascinating and unusual topics.

So until the Soulful Gamer podcast starts up (did I just suggest that?), this will be the only place you can hear me um and err my way through a subject close to my heart. Enjoy - and here's a Healslime for good measure!


Monday, 5 October 2009

Demon's Souls Review - A real brutal legend

Demons Souls is my nemesis in videogames. It's an excruciatingly hard game. Unforgiving. Seemingly vindictive with its level design and psychopathically joyous about letting you plunge hours into a dungeon crawl only to have all of your progress pruned back without a second chance. It will induce rage quits, controller violence and an urge to hate every counter-intuitive system it possesses until you swear you'll never touch a videogame, never mind a RPG ever again. It is, without doubt, the most challenging and difficult game I have ever encountered.

And I love it.

Let me be clear, I'm very intolerant of games that hinder accessibility and make it impossible to progress without having to learn intricate strategies or ninja reflexes. The one aspect of Japanese RPGs that I despise the most is the inability to save the game anywhere - there's been many a time when I've gone to bed many hours late because I was solely looking for a save point. In this aspect Demon Souls has itself covered - because you can't save anywhere at all.

So all these preferences and observations after hours of play should really make me despise Demon's Souls as any but the most hardcore gamer would. But where these faults would ruin any other game, it is their unique presence that makes Demons Souls one of the most progressive and rewarding games I've ever experienced.

It's the embodiment of a videogame oxymoron. So much of Demon's Souls in tied up in layers of difficulty that's its very easy to turn it off and forget it exists. But the pull of the game comes in its atmosphere. Not just because the world of Boletaria is full of dark and dank places, or that the enemies are a mixture of grotesque zombies and nightmarish creatures. It's the unrelenting feeling of oppression that sucked every part of my life into this game, whether I was playing it or not. Even the rare environments which bless you in clear sky and open air, still have a pallor of darkness hanging over them, a sense of bitter despair amongst the ancient stones.

This is in part down to the visuals and medieval art-style that permeates the whole game. But the most practical evidence of this oppression is the gameplay. Whereas most modern games lead players by the hand, Demons Souls contents itself with the most perfunctory of tutorial levels before planting you straight into the world. I instantly felt uneasy in the safe confines of the Nexus, the hub-world where I could upgrade my equipment and learn about magic and combat systems. Stumbling around in this way didn't actually put me off, it made me all the more curious about this strange world and the odd characters that inhabit it.

The levels themselves are equally as cloying, giving up their secrets and designs only after hours of play. Again, whilst this would usually result in a big fat off button being pressed, Demons Souls turns its harsh mechanics into a fascinating feature that changes the way I look at its world. As the weakest enemy can seriously threaten your existence, being knowledgeable about their locations and their behaviour becomes half the battle. I found wading in with the superhuman ambition of God of War or Viking: Battle of Asguard (which this game is most similar to, in terms of raw gameplay), to be utter suicide.

Only after many attempts at the first level did I come to realise that my perception of how games normally work would have to change. Instead of expecting to waltz through the opening levels and have the strategies of the game explained to me in a digestible form, I had to use each of my attempts as a self-styled tutorial - teaching me the intricacies of the environment and the methods which worked best to advance. It became, in many ways, a puzzle game - the further I progressed the more pieces of the puzzle I unlocked. Whether it was merely opening a side door to serve as a short cut or memorising the enemy locations, the way through would became shorter with each attempt until I nailed it down to an almost rhythmic level of speed and precision. 

Taking on the game like this might sound tiresome or lessen the atmosphere that painted the world in such a convincing way. But spending eight hours on the first level of a game felt conservative compared to how many I wanted to spend in it before moving on. These scenarios through the five locations in Boletaria became home to me. Not a very nice or welcoming home, especially in the latter worlds, but the familiarity that I created by willingly devoting so much time them made it a special experience.

The pay-off from such involvement comes in the defeat of the Demons. These boss battles are harsh, just as the rest of the game is, but they yield a sense of satisfaction that rarely appears in my videogame history. Combining a gruelling run through tough enemies and having enough guile and skill to defeat these demons gave me such a buzz that letting out a truimphant war-cry was the only natural response.

Multiplayer is never an aspect of games I talk about. Quite simply because it lacks any soul or heart to its creation. The prime directive for most games is the wholesale slaughter of your opponent. Nothing too complicated or deep about that. But Demons Souls integrates a system that fosters such a sense of community, in a subtle and anonymous way that makes it worthy of mention. At any point during the game I was able to observe ghosts, battling unseen foes or just running alongside or through me. These are all other players on the server playing the game at the same time and there are only two ways of interaction. One is passive - by leaving a message on the floor of the level which could warn of an attack ahead or pointing to a danger elsewhere. But the other is much more active.

There are ways to invade other players worlds, and they to invade yours. Either as a co-operative measure, to assist each other in completing a level. Or, more disturbingly, to hunt you down and kill you. This is the option that fills the game with character and makes each session a nervous and exhilarating experience. I have never felt so in fear for my character in a game before. It's not as if death would destroy my game, but losing so much progress to another human player in this way takes Demons Souls to another level.  

Even though the MMO-style integration is there, and the visible signs of other players attempting the same objective in their world is obvious - it does nothing to break the feeling of being in this haunting world. There is a tenseness, a clawing feeling of claustrophobia that envelopes the whole experience when I play this game. It feels like a medieval nightmare brought to life and its harsh and unforgiving methods embellish its dark soul.

So is this experience fun? No, not in the usual sense of the word and I had to work through the difficulties that Demon's Souls creates to uncover how memorable it really is. But if any of the mechanics were 'fun' then it wouldn't be half the title it is. This is a game that only rewarded me after hard work. Every piece of equipment, every item and every inch of progress was a bloody battle that I had to fight tooth and nail to achieve - making the defeat of a certain enemy or completion of a level so much sweeter.

Demons Souls stands tall within a tired genre. It's dark atmosphere and grim storytelling create a masterpiece that has no equal and gave me the most interesting and affecting experience a game has ever tried to do. I've played many games that have tried to innovate in the role-playing-game genre, but none have made such a brutal, yet ultimately rewarding game as this. Thanks to Demon's Souls the RPG genre doesn't feel dead any more to me, it feels like its just beginning all over again.