For years, medical professionals have touted the mantra of 'prevention is often the best cure'. It is with this somewhat clumsy setup that i move to take aim at something which is quickly becoming a trope of modern third person games and their combat systems. Before the gloves figuratively come off, feel free to grab your mouthguards and protective gear - ready? FIGHT!
Since the release (and subsequent critical acclaim) of Batman: Arkham Asylum, i can't help but notice the increasing frequency of the application of the two button attack/counter combat mechanics which it employed. Before throwing the first jab, i will clarify that the combat mechanics both felt good and were appropriate systems to employ in both Arkham Asylum and it's sequel, Arkham City. However, what does trouble me is that since the release of these games we are beginning to seemingly see developers treat these combat mechanics as some kind of all purpose 'gold standard' for third person action games. Just to take recent history, both the recent Spiderman title and Sleeping Dogs feature combat mechanics which are invariably referred to as 'Arkham Asylum-esque' in any review - and, if readers will indulge me in a little crystal ball gazing, i wouldn't be surprised to find a similar state of affairs when more details come to light about the upcoming Deadpool game, among many potential others.
I do not wish to put forward that such mechanics cannot be utilised to great effect - what i do hope is that both game developers and their audience will give some measured thought as to whether implementing this kind of system will serve titles x, y or z in the best possible way. On the positive side, these mechanics can often lend themselves to visually impressive scuffles by virtue of largely doing away with specialised player inputs in a battle situation. On the less glamourous side, it often leads to the gameplay mechanics feeling more akin to a rhythm game, or possibly even analogous to a QTE, especially after the player has been repeating the same kind of patterns over the course of a game. To take the recent example of Sleeping Dogs - a game which i personally loved - it was particularly apparent to me in the second half of the game that i was essentially switching my brain off in any hand to hand combat scenario, and was just going through the motions of timed simple button presses in order to advance...i had simply long ceased to be engaged in the moment to moment gameplay via mega repetition to such a point that beating everyone down had become little more than a conditioned reflex. If the other aspects of this game did not keep me interested in the ways they did, i simply would have given up on it midway through - this should be something of a warning sign.
Whilst the above point is largely inevitable to some degree with any kind of combat mechanics over any 10+ hour title, i worry that this perceived shift in combat mechanics will lead to a glut of very same-y feeling games to be released in the coming year. Third person titles praised in large part for their combat mechanics such as Ninja Gaiden, God of War and Bayonetta also do suffer from some degree of repetition over the course of the game - however, the player has access to a much more varied set of mechanics and options from moment to moment combat, and as such the player's brain continues to be engaged in each battle more actively than i feel the basic attack/counter setup can provide. Not to suggest that these titles should be treated as some kind of absolute ideal - without a doubt, as time goes on and gameplay mechanics are overhauled and refined, these too will begin to look a little simplistic in the broader scheme of things.
Essentially, if i am going to be sitting through hours of many similar scenarios over the course of a game and at some point therein i am no longer challenged nor engaged by what makes up a large portion of the gameplay, it should be a sign that perhaps there is a better system to be implemented. Obviously, it is awfully optimistic to think that we will see a game in the near future where players do not encounter any significant degree of combat repetition - however, given the sales and critical acclaim awarded to Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and Sleeping Dogs in a relatively short space of time, one cannot help but assume that gamers will be waiting for their moment to hit Y in order to counter attack for a while still.
Just like a perfectly crafted and thrown boomerang, we are back for another installment of Stephen Pastic's Rewind - the target this week being Killer7. Released in 2005 for the Gamecube and Playstation 2, Killer7 was the first major title for Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture. Captivating and dividing the opinion of the gaming press even prior to release, Killer7 to this day is very much a 'love it or hate it' game.
The first thing which immediately jumps out with this title is it's striking visual presentation. Utilising a heavily stylised variant of the cel-shading visuals seen in titles such as XIII and Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, Killer7 is instantly recognisable. As the game was approaching release time, many were enamoured with it's graphical style even though many pre release trailers did little to suggest what players could expect in terms of gameplay. Once players got their hands on the finished product, it was immediately clear that Killer7 was very much a unique beast, for better or worse. Story wise, the game's set up involved a struggle between Harman Smith (an elderly wheelchair bound assassin), and Kun Lan - who controls bizarro suicide bombers by virtue of his possession of the "God Hand". Stepping into the shoes of Harman, players have access to his multiple personalities, all of which are somewhat left of center field assassins themselves - but, rather than simply switching in game personae, each personality also has it's own physical body and special abilities. If that sounds wacky at the outset, you should know that by Killer7's conclusion the higher functioning portions of your brain will have been well and truly punched into submission.
The most obvious comparison to make in terms of gameplay is that of an 'on rails' shooter. Players can only move forwards or turn 180 degrees on the spot, and will move into a first person view upon holding the aim button. Maniacal giggles alert the player to the prescence of any Heaven Smile (those bizarro suicide bombers i mentioned earlier) in the vicinity - which for some reason, it is necessary to first hit a button to scan for enemies (thus making them visible) before taking aim at their relevant weak points. At risk of being misleading, the game also features 'puzzles' which often must utilise a specific persona's abilities, albeit the game pretty much explicitly tells the player what is needed to advance...even the former US president would be unlikely to run into much trouble here.
At this point, if you have not yet played Killer7 you are probably thinking that this sounds freaking horrible...and you would be right. The moment to moment gameplay often feels poorly designed and something you will have to grit your teeth through, even for a fan of the game. No, that wasn't a typo - despite the fact that what i have described is certainly not something i expect people to welcome with open arms, Killer7 is a rare example of a game's plot and presentation overriding the mountain of crap the player is forced to endure.
Killer7's story somehow manages to be simultaneously functionally retarded, yet pants stiffeningly inspired. Unfortunately, you will simply have to take my word for it as i do not feel i could accurately summarise it whilst keeping the word count under seven figures. The cast of characters throughout are nothing short of utter lunatics, and are all 'voiced' in a similar way to the N64 Banjo Kazooie games, with fractured elements of speech being thrown together in an auditory mish-mash. Even prior to getting a handle on what the hell is actually going on, there are many moments which are so bizarre that will keep you trudging through the sub mediocre gameplay just to see what the hell will happen next. This, coupled with the game's striking visual signature is what keeps me coming back periodically to do it all over again. I said at the outset that Killer7 is very much a 'love it or hate it' game...if you want further evidence of this, simply have a look at reviews for the game - i would wager that you will find very few average review scores attached to it, with most being split between heavy recommendations and mega 'avoid at all costs'. For those who would like to see something very different from the norm, Killer7 may well be worth looking in to, but i take zero responsibility for disappointment.
Welcome back, nostalgia fiends! This week on "Stephen Pastic's Rewind", we go against conventional wisdom and take a look back at something of a niche title, as opposed to something bound to garner far more hits - i.e. Metal Gear Solid (keep your pants on...it's coming). Released in 2005, Microids' Still Life is essentially a "point and click" adventure game centering around the pursuit of a serial killer.
First off, as a PC "point and click" title that was ported to the original Xbox, Still Life is certainly not a title one would be compelled to return to via gameplay alone. From a simple yet mega clunky inventory system, to a run button that does sweet bugger all in speeding up player movement, Still Life is something of a hard sell in convincing those unfamiliar with the game to give it a crack.
The basic thrust of the game involves players alternating between FBI agent Victoria McPherson (who is investigating a series of grisly murders in modern day Chicago), and flashback chapters as Victoria's grandfather Gustav - who is looking into a series of crimes with eerie similarities in 1920's Prague. As with most games of this genre, player progression is mainly gated by solving the frequent puzzles which rear their head - some of which can be anus clenchingly frustrating.
Whilst i enjoyed (possibly not the right word here, given the context) the overarching story, what keeps me coming back to this lesser known title is just how gloriously messed up certain segments of the game are - the centerpiece being a chapter as Gustav McPherson where he witnesses something in a state of utter powerlessness that would send even the most strong willed person well and truly loco. Furthermore, this event serves to give some pretty well thought out context as to how Gustav and Victoria's grandmother came together, given how his part of the story plays out.
On Victoria's side of things, a man wearing an ornate expressionless mask complete with a black cape and top hat serves as the primary antagonist. Right from the beginning of the game, Victoria is called to a crime scene to examine the perpetrators handiwork - it was from this early point that Still Life managed to get it's hooks into me. Collecting evidence at this first crime scene had an almost suffocating sense of atmosphere as you move through the abandoned building, trying to piece together the sequence of events that left an unfortunate woman mutilated in a bathtub.
As something of a psychology nerd, this opening sequence left me with the impression that the developers had a much more acute understanding of serial murder than most games dealing with the subject. As Victoria's fellow agent Claire reconstructs the preceding events after gathering the required evidence, i couldn't help but notice that Microids had gone above and beyond the typical level of research into subject matter such as this. Whilst this level of attention to detail wasn't quite maintained throughout, it was certainly an effective opener in getting my attention.
Progression through the story slowly reveals a set of uncomfortable connections between events in both time periods, and also with some recent additions to Victoria's boyfriend's art gallery. Whilst there are more than a few hokey, ridiculous occurences throughout, i challenge anyone interested in the subject matter not to be sucked in by the game's narrative twists and turns. I also have to stress that some of the locales throughout manage to tickle my brain in a way that few other titles have been able to outside of Silent Hill 2 - while not always being overtly messed up, some places (such as the upper class brothel) manage to be artistically beautiful, yet have a really uncomfortable atmosphere to them - despite the fact that any kind of action only occurs in non interactive cutscenes.
Finally, whilst the cliffhanger ending is something of a modern gaming trope, i feel that Still Life's ending may be one of the most effective, yet frustratingly cheap conclusions i have ever borne witness to (at least until it's god awful resolution in Still Life 2). In short, if you are one of the few people who can both handle mediocre gameplay for the purpose of a gripping story and also have an interest in the darker side of human mentality - suss it out.
Welcome ladies and jellybeans to the first episode of "Stephen Pastic's Rewind" - a brand new series looking at titles from the past which i routinely return to. Kicking things off with a megaton sized bang for episode 1 is Super Metroid for the SNES. Released in 1994, it has since gone on to be featured on various 'best games of all time' lists, as well as being a massively influential title on the speed running community. So what is it about this game that compels players like me to regularly return to this classic?
Firstly, the game still looks great - while other SNES titles were starting to dick around with the whole 3D thing (i.e. Starfox), Super Metroid stuck to the 2D format of its 8-bit heritage and was beautifully animated to boot. At the time, i had not played either of the prior Metroid titles but yet was immediately drawn into the fictional world of the planet Zebes, with all of its varied and themed environments. From underground jungles, to what could be construed as a 16-bit version of hell itself, nobody could accuse Nintendo's R&D1 team of phoning this one in. Character sprites moved with remarkable fluidity, visual effects were impressive for their time, and most importantly the game's boss characters all looked legitimately intimidating.
Another part of Super Metroid that has stuck with me over the years is its crushing sense of atmosphere and isolation. Certain segments of the game have an almost palpable sense of foreboding dread that i don't recall seeing prior. For a SNES era 2D sidescrolling game to imbue the player with a heavy sense of apprehension was no mean feat - for it's time, one could almost call Super Metroid a psuedo horror game. The fantastic atmosphere, character design and animation is only helped by what may be one of the most popular game soundtracks of all time. Running the gamut from upbeat (Upper Brinstar) to orchestral (Lower Norfair) to downright creepy (Item Rooms, Tourian), the different aural backgrounds on show were nothing short of stellar - especially considering the technology constraints on the audio of SNES titles. Without a shadow of a lie, i was so enamoured by the soundtrack that i actually used to let the game run idle in various areas while recording the music onto cassette tape - and even to this day, i hear shades of Super Metroid in my own recorded tunes.
Super Metroid also managed to deftly tell a story without any words or dialogue, save for the couple of paragraphs of text at the very beginning. At the game's climax, i am sure many of us who have completed this gem clearly recall feeling something as the baby Metroid is annihilated in front of Samus' eyes. As the music then swells into a very heroic sounding theme, i would bet that most of us yelled something to the effect of "game on, bitch!" before rocking Mother Brain's head in the Chris Brown/Rhianna style. Whilst many games have come and gone since with much more gravitas, at least in my experience, Super Metroid was my inital exposure to the potential idea of videogames as a legitimate storytelling medium.
I would be remiss to omit mentioning just how brilliantly designed the game was - whilst there is a (for want of a better term) "proper" way to complete the game, by utilising many various techniques (many of which are somewhat hidden in the plain sight of players), it is possible to complete the game by skipping over significant portions of the ordinary sequence of events. To hammer this point home, there are several techniques available to players (some right from the beginning) that most people who finished the game may not even be aware exist - if the title screen is left to run idle for some time, the gameplay demo will give clues as to how these advanced moves are performed. Given Super Metroid's design, it is no mystery as to how this title has become a stalwart of the speedrunning community - with a ludicrous amount of options for 'sequence breaks' built in to the game, players are continually striving to find the optimal path for the fastest completion time.
If you have not yet played this title and have enjoyed either Shadow Complex or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. Whilst it is older than the great games it inspired, Super Metroid still stands head and shoulders above it's direct competition.
Over the last few years, quick time events (QTE's) have become one of the most prolific tropes in modern gameplay. Allowing developers to show off their cinematic flair without having to implement ordinary gameplay to account for the awesomesauce on-screen action, QTE's as a whole have been something of a polarising element among gamers. For the uninformed, a QTE is basically a (often visually impressive) cutscene with very limited interactivity - essentially prompting the player to press a certain button or buttons within a short time frame to avoid an in-game fail state. Given how ubiquitous the QTE has become in modern game development, i feel that rather than throwing the concept out the window entirely (as many gamers would suggest), perhaps we should simply re-think it's form and implementation.
In considering the viewpoint of QTE haters, it isn't all that hard to understand their aversion to such a gameplay mechanic. Like them or not, i think that its a fair comparison to draw in saying that getting through a QTE is akin to simply pressing the "next chapter" button on a DVD remote. Either the player succeeds and continues with the game, or the player fails and ends up having to re-do various lengths of gameplay to get back to the same point they started the QTE from. Furthermore, QTE's often assign seemingly arbitrary controller inputs to succeed - for example, if the onscreen character dodges to the right (if inputted correctly), the onscreen prompt will frequently be asking the player to press a button which is not associated with that action in regular gameplay. On top of this, QTE's have a recurring habit of showing the player either a center screen button prompt or even a picture of a controller pop up at the relevant time - whilst this serves to illustrate to the player what is required to pass the little 'reflex test', it often tends to put a metaphorical bullet in the face of the player's immersion at that point in time. To take Uncharted 1 as an example, shaking the controller to get an enemy of Nathan Drake's back may be very well and good, but when the developer combines that with a big onscreen PS3 controller the player is suddenly actively reminded that they are playing a videogame - completely ripping the player out of the game experience.
Whilst i may be speaking the obvious here, (even though i am yet to see this idea implemented, or even discussed) i believe i have a solution which at least goes part of the way to solving many of the inherent QTE problems. Firstly, the game needs to communicate to the player from the outset when a QTE is active without an onscreen button/controller prompt. Whether this be an audio or visual cue, a shift into slow motion during a scene or any combination thereof, a game could establish this and communicate it to the player in the tutorial stages. From this point, all that would be required is to inform the player of some limited options within such a situation - say, you can either move the control stick to attempt a dodge maneuver, hit the jump button to leap away/towards, hit attack to attempt a mega head whack or perhaps hold block to attempt to deflect a potential incoming attack. With this in mind, developers could do away with the onscreen prompts and the arbitrary button presses while still keeping the player directly engaged throughout a QTE without actively ripping them outside of the 'normal' gameplay commands. Developers could then take into account all of the potential inputs allowed for such a situation, and craft something that resembles the standard gameplay scenario far more than that to which we have become accustomed to.
A slight alteration to the formula, i know - but i feel that if QTE's could be implemented in a method such as this, then perhaps it would go some way to bridging the gap between the often mega disconnected segments of gameplay we currently accept as standard. It may not please everyone, but i assume most gamers would be in favour of gameplay systems which are a little more consistent with respect to the QTE - if developers wish to show something mindblowing, i think it would be wise to move in a direction that is congruent with the player feeling as though they are controlling the action as opposed to simply inputting a glorified code to witness the remainder of the scene.
Ah stereotypes - from subpar drivers of asian descent to the elusive sober irishman of legend, stereotypes have the power to make us laugh, rage and sometimes look into things way too much. It should come as little surprise that these cultural perceptions have managed to filter their way through to the gaming world - from our favourite protagonists to our most despised villains, nobody is safe from being portrayed in a manner which will send even the most lightweight member of the PC police into a seizure. With this in mind, i hereby declare the museum of gaming stereotypes open to the public! Children of teenage mothers enter free - simply present your Centrelink papers to witness a slice of digital history!
*Managers warning : by entering this attraction, you hereby acknowledge you fully understand the concept of satire. Management accepts no responsibility for patrons who take the exhibit literally and take it upon themselves to leave comments which suggest that management is somehow culturally insensitive. Patrons who do not abide by these terms and conditions will be presented with 20 Douche Tokens upon their exit - Douche Tokens can be redeemed in the court of public opinion.
EXHIBIT A : The Cole Train
Kicking things off with a massive "WOO BABY!" is Augustus Cole from the Gears Of War series. Both loved and loathed by fans of the series, the "Cole Train" has personality in spades. Albeit, it seems that personality seems to be lifted directly from a pop culture snapshot of urban America. Energetic, confident and very loud would be the terms one would use to describe the former thrashball player if they were conciously trying to choose their words very carefully. It would be fair to say that Augustus would not be one's first choice of backup in a situation which requires any sense of restraint. Phrases such as "bitch ass queen", "bring it on, sucka!" and "this is my kinda shit!" are his stock in trade, and Epic even took this a step further by having Augustus rap over the end credits with at least two of the aforementioned lines featured in the infamous closing jam. For my money, the Cole Train is one of the more endearing, likeable characters in the Gears universe - but one still can't help but get the impression Epic were just one bucket of fried chicken away from a public relations nightmare. WOO!
EXHIBIT B : Any female in a Team Ninja game
Whilst not exactly a stereotype, strictly speaking, Team Ninja's consistent rendering of the female form is one that no doubt sends even Hollywood plastic surgeons into fits of laughter. Impractical skimpy outfits rivalled only by Ivy from Soul Calibur? Check. Suspiciously close to underage? Check. Breasts of such size and jiggle that would make a porn star uncomfortable? Check. Sixaxis controlled jiggle physics on Rachel in Ninja Gaiden Sigma? Okay, you're just taking the piss now. Try as i might to ignore it, one cannot help but wonder about any police records which may or may not exist for the members of the company. In the words of one Chris Hansen, "why don't you take a seat over there, Team Ninja?"
EXHIBIT C : Mario
For a long while, Mario's italian heritage evaded stereotype territory - he just happened to be an italian plumber bashing bricks and collecting coins. Then came the "Super Mario Brothers Super Show". As someone who religiously watched this staple of afternoon programming in my younger days, i don't think i can recall a single episode that went by without a mention of pasta of some sort. This development alone wasn't too bad, but Mario's experience with stereotyping was about to suffer a
hammerblow with the release of Super Mario 64 years later. Who among us does not equate Mario's vocal signature with the infamous title screen proclamation of "it'sa me, Marioooo!"? As if the moustache and unneccesary backstory about being a plumber from Brooklyn wasn't enough, Nintendo stopped just shy of implementing a game mechanic to whistle at any nearby "hot chicks" to gain a powerup. To be honest, im stunned that Nintendo did not try to get Mario a centre stage role in 2K's Mafia 2. I can see it already - Mario takes up a vendetta against Bowser for disrespecting him on the day of his daughter's wedding by scratching his car. Shame on you, Shigeru!
EXHIBIT D : Any antagonist of Soviet background
Over the last few years, it seems game developers have a newfound fascination on the Cold War era "Red Menace". Pretty much any first person shooter released nowadays will feature at least one main villain who will use the term "motherland" at some point. Despite the fact that the Cold War ended in 1991, it seems Russians have become the new Nazi's of the gaming world - however, there is at least one potential industry that may stand to benefit from this recent deluge of vilification of all things from the Eastern Bloc. As i understand it, in-game advertising is now a multi million dollar industry in and of itself, and this presents quite a lucrative window of opportunity for any vodka companies who wish to take the ball and run with it. You may not be able to stop western developers painting the former USSR as a convenient modern digital punching bag, but you can blast the words "Absolut Stereotype" into the retinas of gamers the world over - talk about brand awareness!
EXHIBIT E : JRPG protagonists
Guess the game genre! Androgynous male protagonist sporting an implausible hairstyle. Tends to be the quiet and brooding type who often carries a torch for his childhood friend, but can never bring himself to say so. Immediate family more often than not deceased. Whilst not a stereotype directly attributable to a particular cultural background, JRPG protagonists have become a stereotype unto themselves. Square Enix (to take a specific notable example) tends to put forward the same consistent portrayal of their main characters so frequently it almost borders on self parody. "Nobody understands me"...."leave me be"....."i don't want to talk about it" - it is actually more shocking to me that we have not yet seen a JRPG whose score is wholly composed by My Chemical Romance. Think bad "dark teenage poetry" and you have a potential career in character writing and design. Please send your resume (and a collection of your 'deep' musings on existentialism) to Square Enix at : Shinjuku Bunka Quint Bldg. 3-22-7 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku,Tokyo 151-8544, Japan.
EXHIBIT F : Garcia Hotspur
Shadows of the Damned may as well have come bundled with a free sombrero and pinata given how demon hunter Garcia Hotspur is presented. I can almost smell the Tijuana breeze whenever Mr. Hotspur makes one of his numerous references to either "pendejos", "cojones" or "meh-hi-co" between all of the thinly veiled penis jokes which make up the remainder of the game. Not that Suda 51 and co. were content to leave things there - without even slightly bending the truth here, the player can regenerate lost health by...wait for it...drinking tequila. While Shadows manages to remain pretty tongue-in-cheek about it all, there is still a whiff of the slightly uncomfortable here. Rumour has it that at the eleventh hour Grasshopper decided to cut the bonus stage where the player must successfully sneak across the US border and land a job as a janitor. Wise move there, guys.
Well, ladies and gentlemen - this concludes the first wing of the museum. Feel free to visit the kiosk for some genuine food from around the globe, all served with a variety of amusing accents and mannerisms. Please leave any comments or suggestions in the box below, and we hope you have enjoyed this portion of the tour. Be sure to return here in 15 minutes, as the exhibition moves on to the next wing : "People who do not understand lighthearted commentary". See you all shortly!