Hello all, I'm Scrustle. I've had a strong love for games for most of my life. I was first exposed to them a little later in my life than most other gamers, but I am by no means a newcomer. The original Pokemon games and Zelda: Majora's Mask are what first got me in to gaming, but I didn't get thoroughly in to gaming until the generation after.
The Zelda series and games like it, racing games, and RPGs have grown to become my favourite genres, but I appreciate many others too.
I mostly enjoy games as my primary hobby, but I like to do some serious thinking about them too. I also have an interest in car culture, music of the metallic variety, anime, philosophy, and psychology, among other sciences.
I also have a Youtube channel, where I have a bunch of videos I made of Forza 3. I haven't done anything with that in ages though.
Recently I've been playing Skate 3, and it's a great game, but it's got me thinking about something that's been on my mind for a while. It seems to me that in so many open-world games now, their worlds feel so artificial and forgettable. They lack personality and the feeling that they are real, living places.
Although Skate 3 has been a recent acquisition, I have owned the other two Skate games from their release date (but I've long since sold both). I had a lot of fun with the original game. In a world where skating games were dominated by the already faltering Tony Hawk series, it was a revelation. I even played the demo endlessly, as I instantly fell in love with the game's unique but still intuitive control method.
But apart from that, I found myself drawn to the game's setting. The city felt like a real place, with memorable and believable features. The skate park where the demo took place was a favourite place of mine. It felt like a real skate park and it was very well designed too. The city felt like home, like I was actually a real skater who lived in that place. It felt like it was somewhere that was real, and that it was more than just a videogame level created using polygons and textures.
Just couldn't move me.
But the sequels lacked this feeling. Their worlds weren't badly designed by any means, and they were in fact pretty similar to that of the first, but I couldn't help but feel there was something missing. The second game was actually set in the same city as the first, but with changes made to several areas. One of which was the removal of the skate park from the original's demo! But nevertheless, it was still mostly the same place, yet it just didn't feel right to me. I could never get invested in the game, and I gave up on it shortly after getting it. It was a pretty big disappointment. The third game has a similar problem, although I'm finding it's not affecting me as much. Maybe it's because the game is actually set in a new city this time, or maybe I've just gotten more used to game worlds disappointing me, but it still feels very much like a videogame level, and not an actual place that I would be happy to call home.
This is a trend I've been noticing more and more with games in recent years, and there are no shortage of examples. You don't have to look very far away from Skate to see many of those either. Black Box, the studio behind the Skate series, has also been responsible for a large portion of the Need for Speed series, including both games at its peak, and its lowest point. I have quite a long history with that series, and seeing its downfall has been painful, and the uninspiring settings have been a part of that.
Turns out it's pretty hard to find good screenshots for this game.
Back when the NFS series first tried to do open-world games, they hit the nail right on the head on their first try. Bayview, the city in which NFS Underground 2 was set, was a great place with which I have a lot of memories. I know that city inside out. I know every street corner, and every landmark. Every place holds memories of exciting races, and has its own personality. I grew very attached to that place, and it began to feel like home. It felt like Bayview was a real place, one that exists somewhere in reality, whether I played the game or not. And every time I go back to the game, it feels just as familiar as it always did. It feels like going back home after a long time away. I don't have to try and relive old memories, because just playing the game and experiencing its setting feels like I'm creating even more.
The game that came after NFSU2, the original Most Wanted, holds many similar memories. MW's city, Rockport, was another brilliantly designed city that didn't feel like it was designed. I have just as many memories with that place, and it has just as much personality as Bayview. I can still go back to that game as well, and have a similar experience with it.
Even harder for this one.
But with Carbon, that feeling started to wear off. Much like with many aspects of the game, the signs were showing that it was the beginning of the end. I still have a certain fondness of Palmont, the setting for this particular game, but it's nothing like the love I have for the previous two, and it certainly feels like it has less personality than them. It still has more of a soul than the setting of the latter two Skate games, and the setting for Criterion's take on Hot Pursuit for example, but it was just the first point of a very long fall for the series.
And now we come to the lowest point that the NFS series fell to. Skipping ProStreet, since it was not open-world, we come to Undercover. That game was awful in almost every single way. The thing was though, that the area the game was set in, the “Tri-City” area, had potential to it. It had a pretty unique layout, it was just terribly realised. It felt empty and artificial, but with a healthy layer of dull, grainy brown over everything to make sure nothing which could possibly have any personality could stand out. In fact I feel as if at this point the Skate series was also partially responsible for the fall from grace of the NFS games. Not only were Black Box under pressure to create a new game every single year, and creating an entire new engine for Undercover for some reason, they also had the Skate games to create as well. They were spread far too thin and given far too little time to do what they had been tasked with. So, typical business practice from EA there.
Yet more screenshot woes.
The Skate series also brings to mind another example. I've been playing another game from a certain series recently, with which I've had an almost identical experience. That series being Saints Row. Much like with Skate, I recently picked up the third instalment, long after its initial release, despite playing the original two from day one. I'm also feeling the setting of The Third lacking personality, and a sense of vitality and reality to it, as well as feeling like it still does a better job than the second, which was set in the same city as the first game.
In the first Saints Row I really felt at home. Not only did the city feel like an actual, living place that I could immerse myself in to, it also had an area I was particularly attached that. That place being the actual Saints Row. Yes, for those who might not be aware, originally the name of the series, and the name of the Third Street Saints, actually made sense. It's where they came from in the original game. It was a dirty little hovel, but it was home. Then in the sequel they decided to bulldoze the whole area (along with various other places), and I was left feeling alienated, and like the city had just become a collection of polygons and textures attempting to represent a city, with absolutely no heart to it. The Third felt a bit more fresh and different, but it still couldn't come close to how the original did, to me at least.
Home sweet home for the Saints.
I could list many more examples where this has happened. Where game worlds of sequels completely lacked the soul of their predecessors. Fable 2, the SSX reboot, and Crackdown 2, just to name a few.
But it's not so tragic all of the time. Often I find games where I can appreciate their settings, and even find them quite beautiful and appealing, but they still lack that feeling that they are more than a game world. That they are a place in which I could actually live. They exist in a strange middle ground.
One game where I have found this is part of a series I adore, primarily because of their worlds; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is a beautiful place, with stunning scenery and so much detail. It is truly a sight to behold seeing clouds form around the dramatic and rugged peaks of the North of Tamriel, or to see the auroras at night lighting up the sky. Or to just look around in the undergrowth and find insects bustling about among the plants that sway in the wind as the snow gently falls. But it just feels like it's missing something to me. It feels far more alive than the world of Saints Row 2 or Skate 3, but it just doesn't feel like a place which I can be a part of. I own several houses across Skyrim, which I furnish and fill with my trophies, but they never feel like homes. Skyrim feels like a game, not a place to me. It's a game with a great setting and vast world, but it's not my home away from home.
I like it a lot, but I don't love it.
Although Morrowind certainly had a lot of personality to it, Cyrodiil of Oblivion is the place I fell in love with. That's the place I call home. Even though some areas of Cyrodiil are starting to show their age, especially the Jerall Mountains in light of Skyrim showing a much better representation of mountainous terrain, I still feel as if it's much more of a real place than the setting of its successor. Anvil, Skingrad, Cheydinhal, Chorrol, and Leyawiin (props to Google Chrome for having all those names in its spellcheck dictionary) are all towns that feel like actual places to me, places that I and other characters of the game could easily call home. Skyrim just couldn't quite capture that, despite it still being a much richer world than other contemporary games.
Another game that fits in to this odd place is Sleeping Dogs. Unlike Skyrim, this is a game that I never really managed to get invested in. One of the strongest aspects of it is the setting, which certainly had a lot going for it, but I still never felt like it was a place I could really get immersed in and believe. It looked great and had a lot of detail, but it was just missing that special something.
It's the same story with many others, like The Faelands from Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Colorado from Forza Horizon, Paradise City from Burnout Paradise, Oahu and Ibiza from Test Drive Unlimited 2, Liberty City from GTA IV, San Francisco from Driver: San Francisco, and the worlds of both Darksiders games. Even more recent incarnations of Hyrule fit in to this category, even if they do rank above most others. I really like all these settings, but they just don't move me like others from older games did.
Pretty and colourful, but still missing something.
So why is this? Why can't I lose myself in these game worlds, and why do they feel as if they've lost their life and their soul? Perhaps it's something as simple as them not being modelled well enough. Their layout and features are maybe just uninspired. Maybe their renderings are below par, and they need better lighting and textures, etc. Or maybe it's got nothing to do with the world itself. Maybe it's music and audio design. I've always held the position that music and audio in games lend a whole lot more to the experience than we usually give them credit for. There are certainly a lot of games in which sound is a huge part of their atmosphere.
Or perhaps since this is something that seems to nebulous and incorporeal, it's just nothing more than nostalgia, and I've just grown jaded and cynical. If that's true, then how is it that I can go back to these old games that I love so much, and have the same experience I always did? I don't deny that I'm a cynical person, but why does my cynicism have no effect when I go back to the Nippon of Okami, the Hyrule and Termina of the N64 Zelda games or Wind Waker, The Forbidden Land of Shadow of the Colossus, or Kanto, Johto, or even Hoenn of the older Pokemon games? Is nostalgia really that strong? Can I really have that nostalgia for the games that are actually relatively recent?
Is this even something that other people have noticed in recent years? I've certainly not heard anyone bring it up.
Since I've hopefully grabbed your attention with my wildly sensationalised and misleading title, I perhaps owe it to you to explain what I mean.
I don't actually mean that games are terrible at telling stories outright, but I think there is a lot about their nature that can greatly negatively affect their ability to tell traditional stories, especially from the perspective of someone who isn't used to games.
A problem that often arises with games and their attempts to tell meaningful stories is the problem of ludonarrative dissonance. The idea that what happens in the story is contradictory to what happens in gameplay. But I think this problem has an even deeper level to it. The fact that there is a separation between story and gameplay at all.
"I'm not your errand boy", except you totally are.
As gamers, we're used to having story delivered to us via non-interactive sections of a game that are completely separate from actual gameplay, but therein lies the problem. These two aspects are split apart and have a totally different pace and tone. If we look at the game as a method of storytelling in a holistic way, it completely screws with traditional storytelling pacing. After all, when we take control of a character in a gameplay sequence, is it not technically also part of the story? Most games are not like Braid or Catherine, where what you actually play has very little to do with the narrative being delivered, rather it's all part of a constant sequence of events. When Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth stop yapping at each other and people start shooting at them, it isn't suddenly a completely different piece of entertainment, the characters have simply come across other minor characters in the story that want them dead.
Consider what that means over the entire story of the game. It means that for most of the actual story is spent covering extremely drawn out and mostly inconsequential action sequences. Imagine if the balance between action and character moments of your average shooter or action game was translated in to a book or a film. In a book there would be pages and pages of nothing but tedious details, like whether the protagonist was able to shoot a certain enemy, and every occasion that he had to reload, or take cover, etc. It would take up the vast majority of the book too, and most people would call it terrible. The same is true for film. People would get tired out and bored with the constant action, most of it with utterly no meaning. If we decided to add the camera angle usage of games in to film too, things would be made even worse. People would not stand for it.
This is why I think a lot of people who are not familiar with the medium struggle to understand it and take it seriously, in at least a narrative sense. To them something in which you spend the vast majority of your time trying to overcome some kind of test of skill that has absolutely no significance in the actual plot severely damages the impact of said plot. It would be like if The Big Lebowski was 10 hours long, 9 of which filled with nothing but The Dude just bowling.
This guy is the final boss.
This doesn't mean that games are awful at storytelling though. Of course not. There are many games that do a brilliant job. But our medium is still young and I think a lot of games try to stick to this traditional method of storytelling when a different method is probably better suited. Some of these games that do it this way have actually delivered brilliant stories, but I still often can't shake the feeling that it's an unfitting method. That the separation results in the feeling that little bits of movie are being forced in to a game, thus accentuating how separate story and gameplay is in many games, and how much gameplay simply as an entity in and of itself is detrimental to this storytelling method.
That's not to say that gameplay is bad, or that story should take precedence over it. On the contrary, gameplay should always be the most important aspect of our medium. It's just the method many games use to tell stories creates an abrasion between the two. As experienced gamers, this does not tend to faze us, but to those who are not comfortable with the notion of gameplay, this drastic dichotomy is much more readily apparent. Thus they find it much harder to reconcile these two separate aspects of the game as being part of a singular, coherent experience.
This morning I realised something about Infinite that I think is actually a pretty big flaw, especially compared to the previous games of the series.
I was listening to the Gamestation podcast yesterday and they were talking about Infinite, and there was mention of how the gun variation in the game isn't very good. So I thought about it myself, and they're totally right. You have various generic machine guns and rifles, a couple of standard handguns, and an RPG launcher. The only gun that's slightly out of the ordinary is the heater, which I personally find unwieldy to use anyway. It's miles away from the stuff in previous games. Things like the chemical thrower from the original and the various different Big Daddy weapons in the second for example. Not only that, but you have the special ammo types as well. They don't just do damage differently to each other, but they behave differently as well. You have the electrocuting and exploding buck for the shotgun, the electric and freezing gel with the chemical thrower, the homing rockets and proximity mines for the rocket launcher, etc, etc. But in Infinite all the guns pretty much just do the same thing. Just shoot normal bullets or exploding things. Not very interesting.
Then there are some things I noticed myself. The movement speed being slower in Infinite really changes how the game plays, and not for the better. While in the original games firefights felt really frantic, fast, and kinetic. You felt like you had a lot of mobility and a good ability to dodge incoming fire. Fights could move a whole lot too. Where you started firing at an enemy could very often be somewhere completely different to where you finally put them down. In Infinite you don't have that at all. You feel weighed down and like you can't really avoid incoming fire. And the lack of movement in the battles make the fights feel much more like shooting galleries. You often only stay in one place, and you can't really move much even if you wanted to because if you come out of cover you'll get shot down without being able to return fire if you're sprinting. While fighting from the skylines has you moving faster, it's impractical. The speed you move and the wonkiness of the controls means you can't really get your aiming right, so it's a waste of time to even try. In the older games, although the aiming was still a bit janky, shooting while moving wasn't really a problem since you were the one controlling the direction, so you could predict and compensate for it. Or at least, that's how it is on consoles. Maybe it isn't a problem with mouse controls.
The limitation of how many weapons you can carry is a problem too. It's not as big of a problem as the stuff I've already mentioned, but it adds yet more to the feeling of constriction in combat. In the previous games you could experiment much more, and gameplay felt more varied in being able to choose whatever crazy weapon you had at any time. I really can't see any reason why they took that away. It doesn't make any sense at all. It means I'm just falling back on the same few weapons, not that using the others really makes much difference anyway.
And continuing on the topic of varied gameplay, the lack of different mini-games is sorely missed too. Hacking and taking photos may not have been the best aspects of the older games, but totally taking them out without replacing them with anything was a bad move. The already stationary and generic gunfights can really start to drag on when there's nothing else between them apart from conversation. The story and characters are great, but it feels like whenever I'm not doing that, I'm either scouring environments for supplies and such, but being slowed down by the reduced run speed, or I have gunfights which are completely unspectacular. Even the Handyman and Motorized Patriot don't really do much to change things up. Although I have to say I really like the design of the latter of those two examples. The way he spouts out nationalistic rhetoric while raining down gunfire on you is a pretty interesting thing to behold, and I really like the way that when he steps he makes bell noises. But it's little compared to all the different splicers, Big Daddies, and robotic enemies from the older games.
But all this doesn't mean that the gameplay is bad. It's simply okay. Mediocre. It's pretty disappointing considering how much better it could have been. The previous games showed that was possible, even without the tightest controls. Also I'm noticing what all these problems have in common. They've all resulted from the game becoming more generic. It's more homogenised, and the changes are quite obviously from the biggest shooters around. But they've done nothing but constrict the game. It's really weird to see a Bioshock game fall foul of this mistake. It's so depressing. Maybe it's because of pressure from the publisher to appeal to a wider audience. That was, after all, the reason behind the dreadfully boring box art. Maybe they thought they had to dumb the game down to have wider appeal. If so, then you have really disappointed me Ken Levine. You're supposed to be an auteur, not a bitch to the publisher.
So this leads me to something else that was discussed on the aforementioned podcast. They said that the game didn't really deserve the review scores it got. While I tend to hold the position that nothing, or almost nothing, should ever get a 10/10 (nothing is perfect), I was kind of resistant to the idea that the game was overrated. But upon pondering this, I think it actually was. No matter how great a game does story and characters, and no matter how wonderful the setting is, when you have this many problems with the gameplay, there is no way that the game could be worth plenty of the scores it was given. Gameplay is king, and, as they saying goes, boring is worse than bad. Not that it was bad in the older games, but it was definitely a whole lot more interesting. Another thing that they brought up is that perhaps it got such great scores because reviewers were in a rush to write up their review, so they did it right after finishing the game. Thus they were doing so when the ending of the game was still fresh in their minds, and they were too excited over that to really take their time on giving a fair and holistic critique. I haven't finished the game, so I don't know if that's the case, but I think it reasonably could be.
There have been a lot of games recently that have been getting a lot of attention for their unique and untraditional approach, often focusing around narrative or atmosphere instead of action or a test of skill. Games like Proteus, The Walking Dead, and Dear Esther for example. Because of their unusual methods some people have been protesting at calling these “games”. You see people saying things like they shouldn't be winning “game of the year” awards, or that they shouldn't be sold as games, or that they shouldn't even be covered by the gaming press. These comments are usually said with a scornful tone, as if because these things aren't games, they are somehow lesser and undeserving of our attention.
Because of this people often try to skirt around the issue. Saying that it's irrelevant and a waste of time to talk about, and we should just try to appreciate these games on their own merit, rather than worrying about whether we should be paying attention to them.
But the way I see it, both sides of this issue are right and wrong.
As videogames as a medium has evolved it has become apparent that the way designate genres has become maladaptive. The term “RPG” has little to do with the actual appeal of the genre, for example, and it could be argued that the idea that it is even a genre of its own has become obsolete, with almost every type of game including “RPG elements” now. We designate genres by their camera angles and country of origin instead of their mechanics and themes, we group games together simply because their game worlds have a superficially similar structure, and the terms “action” and “adventure” have become so widely used that they have become almost meaningless. We don't know how to categorise our medium any more, and I think it's time we cleaned things up.
I also think that this muddying of the waters has lead us to categorise things as games when we shouldn't do. Figuring out what game should fit in to what genre is one problem, but first we need to work out exactly what a videogame is. That means some things that we currently call “games” may have to be thrown out, but this isn't a bad thing at all.
From here on out, I'll be referring to these things that I don't think are games as “not-games”, since I currently don't have a good name to call them as this point. Perhaps they may even fall in to several different categories, but for the purposes of this editorial, I'm focusing on whether or not they count as games.
So what is a game? Games have been defined as being unnecessary tasks we set ourselves simply for entertainment, or merely a set of interesting choices, but I like to be more specific than that. There are several things I find that are common to all games, video or otherwise. Firstly, their purpose is to give you an objective to achieve, and achieving that objective counts as a win state, such as defeating an enemy or winning a race. It may even be something more arbitrary, like finishing all tasks required on the “critical path” towards finishing a story. Secondly, there are mechanics. These are the tools you are given that allow you to interact with the game world for the purpose of achieving the objective, like your weaponry or move set. Lastly, you have the rules. These tell you what things that you are restricted from doing in a game, but in a videogame they are incorporated in to the mechanics, because the game is not able to allow you to commit an action which it has not specifically laid out for you. You can't make an illegal move, because that move simply does not exist. Failing to correctly utilise your mechanics or pay attention to the rules will result in you finding yourself in a lose state, from which the win state is impossible. These restrictions are what give the game challenge, and are in theory what makes games as a concept entertaining.
Now if we look at some of these not-games, we can see that they don't fit this definition. On the surface they may appear to show similar traits to games, like a similar perspective and control input, which is why I think people erroneously think of these as games, but on closer examination we can see that they're not.
In Proteus there is no objective, no win or lose state, and no mechanics that are designed to be used as tools to achieve an objective. You simply have the ability to walk. Movement can sometimes be a mechanic in a game, such as in platformers, but in Proteus it is not used as a tool that requires skill to be used towards any goal.
Dear Esther shows similar traits. There are no mechanics allowing you to interact with anything, and movement is even more restricted than in Proteus. You simply walk down a path and at certain points a piece of narration is triggered. Sometimes the path diverges slightly, but it has no baring on anything that would resemble success or failure.
The Walking Dead is a much less clear cut case. Personally, with this one I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's not a game, but it certainly shares a lot of features with these not-games. It's kind of halfway between the two, and perhaps shows how this topic is more nuanced than the simple dichotomy of “is it a game or is it not”.
The main feature of the “game” is the story and conversation system. Your main focus of interactivity is around how you choose to treat other characters, and certain choices that alter the story somewhat. These choices result in characters treating you differently, or minor alterations of events in the story, which are usually relatively inconsequential in the overall plot. But almost none of these choices ultimately end in a “win” or “lose” state. It's hard to see the ability to choose dialogue as a mechanic either, at least in the sense of it being a “game”. Your only level of interactivity is choosing from a list of responses, but they often aren't consistent. They're not like the “Paragon” or “Renegade” dialogue choices in Mass Effect, for example. They are a lot less clear cut and less binary than that. This is part of the reason why the game has such great writing, but what it definitely doesn't represent a solid and consistent tool set or rule set. But as I mentioned before, sometimes simply reaching the end of the sequence of events that conclude the story can be considered a win state, although in The Walking Dead you can't really “fail” at the “mechanic” of conversations that lead you towards that.
There are also other aspects of the “game” which are much more game-like; the puzzle segments. These are much more like the mechanics of a traditional adventure game, which are focused around having a set number of actions you can perform, and you have to work out what actions you use with what item/character/object to progress. In The Walking Dead the mechanic is so simplified that it's barely a mechanic at all. For the most part, you don't have to figure anything out. You usually don't have many options for what you can do in any given puzzle scenario, you basically just have to pick up the right item before using it on the thing it's meant for. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, like in the stealth sequence when you first reach the motel, or in one of the various shooting sequences, but are these really enough for them to be called a “mechanic” rather than simply being QTEs or busywork used to progress the plot? I'm unsure on this myself, which is why I'm not confident putting it in the same category as Proteus or Dear Esther, but it's not quite a game either.
“So what if these aren't games?”, I hear you cry. “That doesn't mean they're not fun or I shouldn't be allowed to enjoy them.”, and you would be right. But if we want to get the most out of whatever medium they are, then we should be clear on exactly what medium they are not. They should be free of the shackled of the definition of games, and all the misplaces expectations that brings. Calling these things games would be like grouping graphic novels in with Charles Dickens' works, or calling a quad bike a car. They may have some similarities, but if we judge the merit of one by the standards of other, then we will be doing it a disservice. To be sloppy and too loose with the definition just devalues it and adds confusion. To be stricter with definition improves the vision of what a medium is and what it is trying to achieve, allowing for a clearer progression towards greater heights in each field. Distinguishing one from the other doesn't make it worse, it just allows us to understand better what we are describing. Just because Watchmen is a graphic novel doesn't mean it's any worse than David Copperfield, and a quad bike isn't worse than an Audi A6 because it's not a car, they're just for a different purpose, and their definitions reflect that.
Nor does this mean that experimentation is bad and that we must only ever stick to things that we know we can define. If that was the case I wouldn't have anything to write this piece about. I think it's fantastic that we're starting to see these new and utterly unique experiences that make us question what a “game” really is. But since they're posing the question, surely we should be attempting to deliver an answer. We should be taking this as a chance to acknowledge the birth of an entire new medium of computerised interactive entertainment, not looking down our noses at it as pretentious and worthless, or ignoring the issue because we are afraid or unsure of what this discussion may entail. Even though videogames are still a relatively young medium, they are already branching out thanks to the exponential advancement of technology, and we should be embracing that and all the mind-expanding experiences it can bring.
[Preface: So this is my first contribution to the c-blogs. This isn't what I was expecting my first submission to be, but I thought it was worth sharing. In the future I may do more reviews, but it's more likely I'll be doing something more in the style of an editorial or analysis.]
I personally was unaware of this series until shortly before this HD collection was announced. I had never seen anything quite like it before, but after first seeing it my interest was piqued. When I got my hands on the games myself I was not disappointed.
These games are unlike most other mecha based games, and probably have more in common with something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. They're incredibly hectic and fast paced action games. Gameplay mostly consists of you piloting a very cool and stylised looking mech (called an "Orbital Frame"), as you fight your way through levels against other mechs. Most of them are un-piloted and relatively weak compared the player, but their numbers and speed can make for challenging fights. There are also plenty of boss fights where you go up against what are usually piloted mechs which are of much more comparable power to the player's. Your basic weapons consist of close range melee attacks with a laser sword, and long ranged laser guns. You can also charge your attacks to do special moves with these weapons, but in general they are relatively simple to use. There is also a myriad of sub-weapons which have special effects which add a decent amount of variation, some of which are required to beat certain enemies.
The challenge and fun of the gameplay comes from figuring out how to use these properly, while also paying attention to the frantic and incredibly fast paced action happening around you. Bosses also tend to require some thought in terms of strategy. They can sometimes seem impossible until you work out exactly what the method is. While it lacks a focus on complicated combos like DMC of Ninja Gaiden, there is more of an emphasis on keeping mobile and being aware of movement and position. But the pace of combat and the satisfaction it brings is similar. Skilfully and stylishly despatching your enemies is incredibly exciting and rewarding.
There are a few points though that take the focus of the gameplay away from the combat towards other things that seem rather baffling. It left me confused as to how the designers decided that these sections were even fun, let alone good enough to be put in the game. There is also a very limited local multiplayer mode. It basically just puts two players up against each other in various mechs featured throughout the games, and that's pretty much it.
Graphically, these games look brilliant considering they were built for the PS2. It can sometimes be easy to forget that it's an HD port. The graphical style is very clean and futuristic, with a lot of shiny metal and glowing neon lights, and with fantastic aesthetic design. The second game in particular looks very nice. It has a pseudo-cel shaded look to it, fit to compliment the anime style cutscenes, which also look brilliant. There are some flaws though. Levels are generally pretty small in size, and in the first game low draw distance can be an issue. In the second game there is a mission where you are put in the midst of a battle, with a ridiculous number of enemies and allies on the screen at one time. The frame rate does noticeably drop, but not to a level at which it becomes unplayable. It's still one of the most exciting missions in the game. But in general the brilliant aesthetic and the top-notch animation elevate it above the flaws.
The music of the games is also very good. It mostly consists of futuristic sounding techno, with lots of synthesizers and a thumping beat. It fits the mood of the game very nicely, and keeps the blood pumping. There are also a few tracks which feature Japanese vocals with instrumental aspects to them as well. They are very different from the rest of the music, but they somehow fit. They retain a kind of futuristic and alien feel to them.
The stories however, are pretty poor. These games are set in a future where human kind has spread out across the Solar System, and the extra terrestrial colonies are rebelling against oppressive Earth rule. Although through both games you find yourself fighting against one of these rebel groups that come from Mars, you are not necessarily aligned with Earth either. The reason for this is because the group you are fighting has some kind of evil plot which involves the use of a powerful energy source, called Metatron, which is being mined from the moons of Jupiter. Metatron is also key to the power of the mechs that feature throughout the series, and has some apparently magical properties, which are very poorly defined. Despite the badly explained exposition and obvious plot device of Metatron, I found the setting to be kind of interesting. There's a lot of potential for depth and commentary in there, it's just mostly squandered.
Although the setting for the series is pretty confusing, the narratives of the actual games are comparatively simple. They basically boil down to "defeat the bad guys because they're bad". In the first game you are defending a space colony from the aforementioned rebel group, for no other reason than they are attacking civilian areas. There is an attempt at some kind of pseudo-pacifist message about the morality of violence, and questioning whether ends can justify means, but it's delivered by a protagonist who is insufferably petulant and annoying.
The second game doesn't seem to try to have a message behind it, and focuses more on character development and fleshing out their backstories. Although it's less irritating, and more competent at what it tries than the first game because of its narrower focus, it's still far from good. You get a better idea of who characters are and what their relationships are, but that's about it. Attempts at developing characters fall flat on their face, and hearing about the past of characters does next to nothing to help this.
It's not helped by the fact in both games the voice acting is pretty terrible. If the tone isn't completely flat, it's completely wrong, and translation is awful in places. Although, in some cases that can lead to a chuckle, but that's probably not a good thing. At least the cutscenes that deliver the story in the second game look great. They're done in a very clean and nicely animated anime style, although most of the in-game video calls have little more animation than a mouth opening and closing. It's still far better than the first game though. There are no video calls at all, just audio, and the cutscenes are done using really badly dated CG.
Both games are also pretty short, lasting between 6 and 8 hours. But for the excitement they offer they don't feel like they are too short, or don't deliver on their promise. The second game is also built around replayability, with a new game plus mode which allows you to keep all your weapons, and adds secret bonus boss fights through the story, which unlock extra characters for multiplayer.
For the asking price these games are pretty great. In the current state of the industry, they're incredibly refreshing and bring back memories of a time when games were designed differently. In a lot of cases that's for the better. They're very focused around creating an exciting and unique experience, and nothing else. Sometimes that can be for the worse. Stories are ham-fisted and presentation is lacking in some places. But in the places that matter, these games do a lot right.