Friday, 10 August 2012

Rental Review Roundup

"Hi..." As the Joker awkwardly said to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight... Okay, so it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. In fact it has been quite a long time since I wrote anything for this blog… But I want to get back into it because I’ve played a number of games over the last year, some good, some bad, but ones I feel obliged to talk about gods darn it!!!  

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Vampires and werewolves and demons... Oh My!
I never owned a Super Nintendo so I never had that ‘Castlevania’ phase. More recently, I have played them via emulation on my phone, out of curiosity more than anything. Unfortunately, I lack the warmth of childhood nostalgia, when the prospect of side scrolling through Dracula’s castle fighting off every kind of mythical creature n’ monster ever imagined by humanity throughout the ages seemed awesome. As I have said in previous posts, I got into games with the original PlayStation, when games made the jump to 3D and increasingly aspired to being something more cinematic. Some would argue that games have lost something since the jump to 3D, not I, but then I wasn’t there.

From what I understand, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is not a Castlevania game. At least not in the classical sense. There is no exploration of Castle Dracule’s labyrinth interiors, unlocking new areas with the attainment of new powers and items, all leading up to the final confrontation with Nosferatu himself. Sure is castles and a whole bunch of monster twatting, but Lords of Shadow is very much an action adventure game in the God of War tradition than it is a Castlevania game. During the development the game was known simply as Lords of Shadow before Konami came in slapping the Castlevania title to it, they’ve been looking to reboot the series for years.

This doesn’t mean the game is a mere pretender or generic clone however. Like God of War, Lords of Shadow takes the form of a grand level based quest to rid the world (in this case a traditional Germanic fantasy version of Europe) of evil. Framing this is a storybook aesthetic, with Patrick Stewart narrating the story before each level, whilst Robert Carlyle voices your character Gabriel Belmont with the stupendously long legs. There is only minor occurrences of retracing your steps through levels to gain additional bonuses, but they’re not exactly needed unless you’re a completionist.  

The presentation is one of the things I was most impressed with. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima is listed as an influencing credit, and at times the game shares that rich realization of the metal gear series. It is introduced fairly early on, that this world you inhabit is getting smaller, with humanity infringing upon the domain of the magical and monstrous, which adds a bit of weight to the slaughter of the many monsters you will kill in all manner of dazzling combos and brutal finishers. Unlike God of War, Lords of Shadow does not dwell in the ultra violence, it is actually a lot more tasteful with camera’s panning away just before the head is severed etc. The game has its own kind of energy, that makes it different from Dante’s Inferno or Wolverine’s Revenge, something that allows for high octane action as well as moments of awe.

This is a long game full of amazing vistas and brilliant moments. It could be walking through the snowy mountains towards a lonely castle, or traversal through ancient spires of a flooded city at sunset. The game gives you plenty of moments in which you are just left in awe of your surroundings. It is an element previous God of War games had in between all the disemboweling and torso shredding, an element missing from the third game. Whilst the story is fine and well handled by the voice acting talent, it is the curiosity of where the artistic vision will go next.    

Why haven't more games ripped off Shadow of the Colossus?

Lords of Shadow is a looong game too (on the Xbox360 it comes on two discs). During the campaign you’ll journey through every landscape imaginable, from forests to dark forests, ruins and castles, ice worlds and fire worlds. In one act you’ll fight off werewolves, in another vampires, another demons. There are even monolithic boss fights in which the game becomes directly inspired by Shadow of the Colossus. There is lots of variation and content in this game. If there is one criticism, it is that there is almost too much, which seems strange in a time when most campaigns will last you eight hours. The sequel to Lords of Shadow was announced at E3, but after this game you have to wonder whether Konami have left themselves anywhere else to actually go, apart from space or Tron world.

I would definitely recommend Lords of Shadow of course. In an ocean of God of War clones, this reboot of Castlevania excels in providing players with a lengthy quest with more than its fair share of inventive set piece moments. It may not be Castlevania as you know it, but it is a decent action adventure.   

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II

Now with two lightsabres.
From one God of War clone to another, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is the sequel to the 2008 original, which has been, quite bizarrely, one of the few Star Wars titles to come out of Lucasarts this generation. Remember when Star Wars games were literally everywhere? All throughout the 90s, you had X-Wing, TIE fighter, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Rogue Squadron, Force Commander, Masters of the Teras Kasi, Episode I: Pod Racer and then, going on through to the last generation: Battlefront, KOTOR, Star Fighter, Empire at War, Republic Comando, Super Bonbad Racing… With exception to the Lego titles, where have the Star Wars games been this generation?

In some ways it feels as if Lucasarts pooled all their resources into The Force Unleashed, a game which boasts an advanced physics engine, in which materials react realistically as they are manipulated by the force. It even had a story worthy of the original trilogy. Well, the first game did anyway… The Force Unleashed is an action adventure set in the Star Wars universe, in which you use overwhelming force powers to smash stormtroopers, rancors and other inhabitants of Star Wars lore. It does this by telling an all new story surrounding Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller played by the actor who played Crashdown in Battlestar Galactica.

You already defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor in the last game, in which you also force pulled a Star Destroyer out of the sky and crushed chicken walkers into easily stored metallic cubes. Much of the plot of the second game, indeed, its general existence feels wholly redundant as a result, like déjà vu with better graphics. After having died in the last game, with the rebel alliance created by your act of defiant heroism, The Force Unleashed II has your character cloned by Darth Vader in the hopes that you will be moulded into doing his bidding once again. It doesn’t quite work of course, thanks to the prevalence of implanted memories from your former self who was betrayed by Darth Dickhead at every point throughout the course of the first game. You break free of his clutches and proceed to rescue your space girlfriend Juno Eclipse from the clutches of the Empire. During which you try to grapple with and existential crisis (am I the real Starkiller, am I just a clone!?), and briefly meet Yoda on Dagobath for no good apparent reason.

Do that thing that happens in games, skydive whilst dodging debris...
Combat generally feels more accessible in this game. Enemies are less damage sponges as they were in the last game and require a different line of attack to defeat, some guys will be immune to force powers, others will be immune to lightsabre attacks. In some ways it is more effective at empowering the player. The developers know what you’re here for and throwing a squad of storm troopers off a ledge has never felt so satisfying, but there is little in the way of difficulty. In some ways it feels like this division of Lucasarts is providing a platform for jaded Star Wars fans to vent all of their accumulative angst and frustration over what the series has become over the decade or so.  If only there was a level in which Starkiller was sent into which involved the slaughter an army of cloned Jar Jar Binks’s, perhaps mastered by a bearded flannel shirted overlord named George.

There are only about five levels throughout this game, but if you do want a bit more, you can pay a paltry 80Gs for the Endor DLC level. Following on from the tradition of the Sith edition of the first game, which told an alternative storyline in which you kill Darth Vader at the end, usurping him as the Emperor’s whipping boy. The first game was graced with two additional levels effectively serving as an alternative ‘what-if’ scenario, in which you travelled to Tatooine to kill Obi Wan and Hoth to turn Luke Skywalker over to the Dark side. The Endor level is a similar retread of the Return of the Jedi, you can punt Ewoks off the ground and cut through soldiers of the rebel alliance. However, what begins as harmless fun develops into something truly horrifying in which you kill both Chewbacca and Han Solo in the grimmest way possible. If you didn’t think Star Wars was dead as a franchise yet, you will now. Time to move on... 

Fable III

In Fable, facial hair is a mark for evilness.
Fable III was the difficult third game for visionary game designer Peter Molyneux. In gaming, we don’t have the difficult second title as we do in music or movies, the second game is usually an improvement that builds on the first game thanks to a more experienced and confident staff funded by an inflated budget granted by the success of the first game. Fable II arrived to Xbox360 in 2008 a generational leap from the Xbox original, it brought with it a more ambitious open world with new systems invested within, namely the dog in hindsight but damnit I did love that guy, just like Peter Molyneux said I would.

Fable III comes to the same platform with nothing new to really offer, save for promotion to King in the second half. Effectively giving the game’s moral black and white mindset of moulding your hero in whatever way you see fit added emphasis as you become responsible for not just for yourself but for all of Albion. A definite logical next step for the series.  

You play as the son of your hero from the second game. Now, I feel that I have to get this off my chest, during the second game, despite wanting to create a sexually androgynous corsair type character, my character ate two pies in a desperate attempt to regain health after fighting off a band of balverines. As a result of this he became fat thanks to the game’s internal logic thinking consumption of pies meant fat. He then lost all of his hair when enslaved on the spire effectively making him into Dara O Brian. As I was a paragon of virtue for most of the game and indeed all of these kinds of games, I received a heavenly glow to go with my radiant smile, spreading happiness and mirth throughout the land with a mere fart, the people loved me – the fat bald corsair wearing women’s clothing and constantly smiling like a loon. In many ways, a fairer assumption of my actual real self. Well played indeed Mr Molyneux.

During the course of the game you will help out a number of factions to rebel against your pragmatic, but totally evil King (voiced my Michael Fassbender). In order for them to help you, you must promise to help them once you become king. It is only after you become king that you find out that the reason your brother was totally evil was because he was preparing to defend Albion against a great darkness growing overseas that threatens to consume Albion and the world in general. Your brother failed to mention this at any point during is asshole reign….

Regardless, you are now forced to take up the mantle to defend Albion form the slimy forces of darkness, a bit like Mass Effect 3 then... (REQUIRES A LONG ESSAY) The promises you made to your factions threaten to drain the treasury needed to defend Albion. So what do you do? Appease your subjects or suppress them for the greater good? A lot of people have issue with the second act of the game, as they made good decisions at the start of the game and are forced to break promises to fund the treasury in the latter half of the game. Molyneux seems to be teaching a life lesson, namely you can’t have it both ways, you can’t be an idealist against a world threatening evil, you must be pragmatic and enforce unpopular decisions for the greater good. Leading people is hard. A noble lesson if a little lost in the country bumpkin world of Albion, where men and women, despite previous sexual orientation, want to marry me after I display the head of the bandit leader. Still, for someone who aspired for making players feel love in a video game it is quite a cynical outlook... 

The wealth of a nation. 
In truth, Fable III works when it is just Fable. When your traversing the world encountering colorful characters voiced by the cream of British talent (Stephen Fry, Bernard Hill, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender etc). The combat is satisfying if a little too easy to master, the broad character customizations mean you can run around the world as a punk rock dandy pirate. You still want to explore the world of Albion, it is the kind of game in which you feel obliged to read each pithy eulogy written on every individual tombstone. And the ending is still better than Mass Effect 3…