Monday, January 20, 2014

So Last Year

So, last year was all about Doctor Who. Nothing wrong with that, but I'd thought it might be nice to make the first blog post of this year about something different. Because, you know, I do have other interests. Like games, for instance.
I’ve no idea what the top games of 2014 will be. There are a few titles – like Thief, say – which show promise and no doubt many gamers are anticipating the release of Call Of Battlefield 37: Modern Black Special Ghost Ops Recon. But not me.

Microsoft and Sony would probably like me to get all excited about the PS4 versus Xbox One debate, but while I’m not averse to upgrades I’m holding fire on either of those until a combination of significant price drops and improved range of available titles proves too irresistible. In conjunction with a nice windfall.

No matter how strapped for cash we are, we plebs need our bread and circuses. And for now the Xbox 360 is my arena of choice. Then it’s just a matter of your preferred entertainments in that arena. Me, I don’t mind a spot of blood on the sand. Just whatever you do, don’t throw me to the Christians.

Anyway, since the immediate new year seems barren of fresh titles that appeal to me, it seems a good time to cast an eye or two back over the games that won my admiration during 2013. They could serve as some indication of the kind of thing I might go for in the coming year, assuming there’s anything similar in the pipeline.

At worst, it’s a chance for fond reflection.

All my top highlights surfaced in the latter half of the year and it seems appropriate to kick off with the one that’s still currently providing much fun and entertainment for the whole family. (That’s me and my wife; not the cats especially, although one of them appreciates having a choice of laps as both of us are fixed to the sofa for a few hours at a time.) I refer, of course, to:

LEGO Marvel Superheroes

A perfect marriage of two mighty franchises! LEGO games rarely disappoint – the only one we’ve played that wasn’t quite up to par was LEGO Indiana Jones and that had more to do with the limited cast of standout characters. No problems with that in the Marvel universe. From Ant-Man to Galactus, Avengers to X-Men, they’re all unlockable and playable here – and they’re all cute. There’s the usual array of inventive puzzles and challenges that encourage multi-hero (and villain!) co-operation and there are brilliant little touches, like having to rescue lots of little Stan Lees throughout each adventure and the fact that musclebound bulldozers such as The Hulk and The Thing are unable to assemble Lego bricks. Hulk smash! And Thing clobbers! Others build.

It’s a vibrant, colourful world and it’s almost a shame to smash bits of it up. Haha, who am I kidding? It’s fantastic fun. But in my defence, it’s the most creative rampage of destruction you are ever likely to experience.

Batman: Arkham Origins

In contrast, the Batman games are on the darker side. But in a good way.

While Assylum benefited from the confines of its setting, I welcomed the more sprawling open world of City and it’s back here in Origins. There’s a bleak midwintery ambience, affording plenty of shadows for Batman to lurk in while the villains provide the splashes of comic-strip colour. Bruce Wayne’s a moody sort and to be fair he’s not given much to laugh about this particular Christmas Eve but there’s no shortage of humour amid the gloomier proceedings: Alfred with his dry butlery stand-up routine and a rich supply of comic banter from the thugs scattered across the city. It’s worth listening to them before you beat them up.

Combat is nice and varied with a great range of moves and gadgets, as you’d expect, and the free-flowing frenetic melees are almost as much fun as the clever stealth takedowns where I like to imagine even Batman indulges in a quiet tee-hee as he slopes away to prey on his next unsuspecting victim.

 (NB In Dark Knight mode, the game becomes an altogether different beast – I found it ranged from annoying to impossible. So I wussed out and settled for being an ordinary hero. Those tougher modes are your reward for completing the game on Normal difficulty and I don’t know about you but after a long Christmas Eve doffing up bad guys I like things to get easier.)

It’s no mean feat to construct a story that embraces quite such a large cast of diverse enemies for Batman to confront and the developers have pulled it off on three occasions now, with this instalment introducing some of the less widely known villains along with some very familiar (evil) faces.

Luckily Gotham doesn’t enforce capital punishment and these baddies are only ever banged up in prison, all set to escape and fight another day.

Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

But if crime doesn’t pay in the DC universe, it pays rather handsomely on the islands and open seas of the Carribean. Yes, me hearties, I heartily enjoyed the naval battles in Assassins Creed III, so I was very much looking forward to swashing my buckle in Black Flag. The game lived up to expectations and then some.

Although, like all AC games, it did have this annoying habit of butting into the action with those dull and comprehensively uninteresting modern bits. Dear Ubisoft, I didn’t care about Desmond and I’m even less likely to care about some faceless corporate slave blundering about the Abstergo offices. Fortunately, you’re not tasked too frequently with this mundanery, but it’s still an occasional intrusion when you just want to get back to your piracy and, well, like it implies in the title, assassinating.

These episodes run counter to the immersive experience in what is – again – a vast and richly constructed historical setting laid out for you to explore and plunder. Especially as the scenario here assumes you are plundering memories in the interests of making movies, games and other merchandise based on characters and events within the main story. Luckily, the main action is so much damned fun that it fends off these misguided attempts by the developers to distance you from it all. But I’d love Ubisoft to drop all the modern drudgery altogether. Round it all off in a separate game if you have to – so I won’t have to buy it – but ditch it. Then release further games that pack me off on historical adventures.

Like this one, with more swashes and buckles than you can shake a cutlass at.

Melee combat isn’t quite as free-flowing as I’ve found in previous AC instalments – it seemed trickier to string together parries, which resulted in more interrupts – but fights tended to retain their semi-cinematic qualities and our ‘hero’ has a nice array of moves and gadgets (albeit not quite enough to rival Bruce Wayne’s).With treasure maps, side games and side missions, the opportunity to upgrade your weapons and fit out your ship with various improvements, there’s heaps of stuff to occupy you outside of the main story.

You can even collect an extensive library of sea shanties for your crew to sing – if only to tell them to shut up a few bars in. Highly recommended. Silence is golden, after all, whether on stealth missions or manning the wheel of your brig and admiring the beautifully realised ocean view. Just before engaging that legendary ship coming at you over the horizon.


Of course, if piracy isn’t your preferred brand of criminal activity, you can always play the stockmarket using insider information and giving shares a nudge in the right direction with a well-placed bullet, that sort of thing. This is only one of the more white-collar activities available to you as one of the three leading characters in GTA V, last year’s game blockbuster from Rock Star.

Seriously, seriously good. In major part because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The fact that much of its content horrifies Daily Mail readers is just a bonus.

Once again (and I’m sensing a theme here) it’s a truly expansive, beautifully realised world to roam and freely explore in between a terrific range of story missions and side activities. It’s a modern epic with a spectacular blend of over-the-top action setpieces and compelling human story. The characters are worthy of an Elmore Leonard novel – often unpleasant, dysfunctional, even psychotic and invariably funny. Heightened reality with a touch or two of the utterly surreal and a bumper, brilliant colour catalogue of stuff to do.

The heists, in particular, are immensely satisfying, taking you through the planning, the prep and the score. There are vehicular and aerial stunts, diving to explore wrecks, stick-ups, races, shooting sprees, tennis, a golf course (finally, Tiger Woods meets GTA!) and walking your dog, to name a few.

At first, I wondered if the facility to switch between lead characters might dilute the sense of involvement, but the truth is they are all so well-written and portrayed I grew attached to each of them and wanted them all to live by story’s end. There was one (by now notorious) scene I was uncomfortable with – because I’m a sensitive soul at heart – but there’s something about the dangerously unstable and thoroughly disturbed Trevor that makes him a winning personality in spite of all he does. Michael and Franklin go about their criminal ways with a few more principles between them and again they and their situations are so exquisitely scripted and played that it’s impossible not to empathise with them.

And it’s probably worth stating that for the benefit of concerned Daily Mail readers I’m not in the least bit tempted to go out and do any of the above activities for real. Except maybe golf or tennis, assuming I was fit enough. I’d walk a dog, but we have two cats.

Still, on top of grossing out some folks, GTA V outgrossed a lot of movies last year. And deservedly so. It’s better than most of last year’s movies.

Saints Row IV

Last but by no means least, I have to mention Saints Row. Often considered a poorer cousin of GTA, it may have been that once but it has evolved to become increasingly dafter with each iteration in the series. To the extent that this one kicks you off as President of the USA, plonks you into a virtual world and gives you superpowers to help you fight off an alien invasion.

Already makes GTA V’s collecting UFO parts sound kind of tame, right?

It’s good that these games retain their distinct styles and Saints Row has style aplenty. Big, dumb, bold, bright and huge fun to play. Have yourself a tremendous blast, leaping, bounding and/or flying across the cityscape, freezing, torching, shrinking and otherwise kicking alien butt in all manner of imaginative ways.

Alternatively, pimp yo ride and drive around the streets like a normal human being and shoot the aliens with the customary array of firearms or beat them down with the, er, flexible choice of melee weapons. Ironically, the driving’s one thing I sort of missed from the previous instalments. I mean, you’re free to have and use as many vehicles as you like, but you’ll find as you develop your superpowers that driving is a bit, well, pedestrian.

Some of the activities, like hacking stores, can get a little repetitive but it’s not that difficult to get those done and out the way, leaving you to focus on more important (and entertaining) things.  As with GTA V, I cheerfully frittered away a lot of time in this virtual world because I didn’t want the story to be over too soon. Okay, this story is not worthy of Elmore Leonard, but it is a wonderfully hokey action blockbuster with a good variety of missions, decent challenges and enough silliness to keep Mr Silly in silliness for a whole string of silly seasons. Winner of the best side activity has to be the insurance fraud, where bouncing and ragdolling all over the city even beats flying as a mode of travel.

Mad, bad and great to know.

And it has one key feature over and above all the others – and, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of the coming year’s titles...

A female protagonist. Well, it’s a choice anyway.

Maybe I have a heroine addiction, but surely someone in the games industry has noticed that their market consists of about a 50% male-female mix. Add to that all the lads who’d surely rather watch Lara Croft’s derriere than the chunky armoured buns of some hardened space marine and it leaves me honestly perplexed as to why there aren’t more titles that feature a female protagonist – or at least, as with Saints Row, the choice. It’s the one area I’ve felt that Rockstar have been consistently lax in – fair enough, it’s never done their sales any harm so maybe they know their market better than I do, but with three characters to switch between in GTA V it felt like more of an omission this time.

Okay, Lara Croft used to bounce around like a cartoonish sex doll and we’ve moved beyond that. But the reimagined Lara of the latest Tomb Raider is a mature, strong female character and there’s call for way more of those. Points also go to Bioware for Mass Effect and their female Shepherd – so popular she warranted her own cover for Mass Effect 3. That’s right: players demanded she get her own cover. There’s a demand.

So where’s the supply, games industry?

While you’re busy pushing your next generation consoles with pride, you might consider the next generation of gender attitudes and representation.

Just a thought.

In the meantime, if the gaming highlights of 2014 turn out to be anything comparable to those listed here, 'so last year' will be no bad thing.

Games industry, bring your A game.


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