BONUS CONTENT: Looking back at Half-Life (PC, PS2)

In my Witcher 3 review I mentioned that there were people in some circles that regarded The Witcher 3 as “The greatest game of all time”. As much as I enjoyed the game I whole heatedly disagree with it being the greatest game of all time. Although this did lead me to asking myself what I thought the greatest game ever actually was. I came up with a lot of strong contenders, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Grand Theft Auto III, Silent Hill 2, Portal, but to name a few. I came up with Half-Life quite early on during my brain storming session and with each game that followed it, the less likely it seemed that I was going to be able to top it. So there you have it, Half-Life is the best game of all time and below I shall tell you why.

The story begins with our mute protagonist, physicist Gordon Freeman arriving late for work (I assume he couldn’t call it to work to let them know on account of him being a mute in the pre-email era) at the Black Mesa Research Facility. Once he finally arrives, a routine experiment on an other worldly material goes awry and causes gateways to another dimension to open spewing forth legions of alien creatures. It is up to Gordon and the other surviving members of Black Mesa to close the portals and save the world.

To me one of the reasons for Half-Life’s legacy is not so much the story but in the way it tells it. Previous 1st person shooters of the day (Doom, Duke Nukem 3D etc.) told a story not much further than, run down a corridor and shoot the things that are shooting you. This was not so much a story, but a brief followed by the game. Half-Life in contract had the story run through with the game, the world would develop as events escalated. Events witnessed by Gordon would drive the plot forward along with narrations by and between support characters.

Half-Life has immersion leaking out of it’s eyeballs. The game world, the narrative, the realism, everything about the game seemed like it was solely designed to draw in the player into a gaming experience never experienced before. The game abandoned the idea of levels for one continuous world, this made the world feel large in scope as in doing so it preserves the flow of the game. Guns and health would not hover aimlessly in mid air waiting for the player to pick it up. Health had to be gained by interacting with certain wall consoles, while guns and ammo were found either on dead soldiers/guards or found from armouries around the game. The world was interactive in ways never seen in previous FPS’s. One memorable example being at the beginning of the game where Gordon can interact with a microwave causing a casserole inside it to explode.

Even now, almost 22 years after it’s release it’s legacy stands with all the games that have come from it’s creation, both physically with the likes of Counter Strike, Team Fortress & Portal, as well as the countless number of games since that have been influenced by Half-Life’s innovation and narrative. Half-Life was the first great trail blazer that revolutionised the First Person Shooter and paved the way for others to push the boundaries out that little bit further. It was Issac Newton that said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. I believe that when it comes to video game innovation Half-Life is defiantly one of the giants in which the industry stands upon and because of this it is hard to deny that Half-Life is one of the greatest, if not the greatest video game of all time.

Borderlands 2 (PC, PS3, XBOX 360)

Today I find myself again sitting behind my desk with nothing to do. So instead of the usual (boot up Skyrim and kick me some dragon arse) I’ve decided to do something a little bit more constructive. Instead I decided to return to Pandora, not the one with the blue tentacled alien things, the one full of guns, bandits and things destined to kill you. Along for the ride are my Vault Hunter chums. If you haven’t guessed what it is yet you obviously didn’t read the title, for everyone else it’s Borderlands 2.

After the events of the first borderlands where we learnt that the Vault that the last guys had spent so much time and effort trying to find turned out to be full of nothing but hentai tentacle rape, we are told that apparently there is a bigger and better Vault somewhere in Pandora (not the one with the blue tentacled alien things). Normally that would be enough for sequel material these days, but Gear Box have higher aspirations than that. The opening of Vault v1.0 trigger some sort of global change of the laws of chemistry and a new element Eridium is created, it assumingly being very rare and powerful because it brings forth the epic Hyperion corporation ran by their charismatic leader Relatively Good Looking Jack. You start the game as one of 4 “new” Vault Hunters (I used inverted commas because the characters are more or less cut and paste of the characters from the first game) who’s job it is to stop Jack. The why however alludes me. My best guess is that it’s just something to do whilst visiting Pandora (not the one with the blue tentacled alien things), God knows there’s bugger all else to do.

Lets get one thing straight right off the bat. Although I did have moments of fun, I am not going to say it was a good game. Much like any Steven Seagal film… you know the rest (which from this point onwards shall be known as the Seagal Principle). I found most missions to be tedious and boring, go here, shoot this, pick it up, give it to me, repeat. Whilst I’m on the subject of problems the game has, there is a horrible balancing problem with the characters. I had a house-mate of mine play Co-op with me, he was the commando, I was the ninja. All he had to do was place a turret in the middle of the room and look on as bullets and missiles fly in the direction of anything that didn’t send him a Christmas card in the last 4 years. The ninja in comparison… turns invisible for 5 seconds. Because this gave me near to no advantage at killing anything more than a midget in close quarters I decided to specialise in using sniper rifles, when I did this I was so far away from the action by the time everyone was dead and I joined the group all the good loot was gone (that probably says more about my room mate than anything else). At this point I told him to piss off and played on my own. A better idea along the same lines would have been, slightly longer time, super speed, a bigger melee damage multiplier and most importantly NOT TO TURN VISIBLE AGAIN AFTER ONE SWING OF MY SWORD. Run around hacking bandits in half, a better idea… Moving on.

You know what I miss? The original Borderlands. No, not Borderlands one, the original concept for Borderlands. The one shown in the original teaser trailers (For those interested, it can be found here). A darker more Fallout-esque experience. If my memory serves me well I remember during the development of Borderlands, they announced that there would be various locations for key places on Pandora (not the one with the blue tentacled alien things) to be. Meaning the game world would be completely different each time you played it. Maybe it was dropped because it was too greater task. Shame. Instead the only unique USP of Borderlands is the “Role-Playing-Shooter” tag (Which means it’s a half-arsed shooter with half-arse RPG elements) and the huge number of guns.The first containing 3.5 million different varieties, The second close to 18 million. Seriously? Why so many guns, I can only use one at a time and equip 4 onto my person at any one time. Then again thinking about it, for each unique weapon there are 49 other copies (1 for each level requirement). Meaning the number of unique weapons is much less, but still a hell of a lot. Personally, it just seems like a lot of work for very little gain, the chances of finding the best gun for you in a single game is so small it’s not worth thinking about.

One thing that does set this game apart from is the fact that it has a antagonist. Aesthetically Pleasing Jack, owner of the Hyperion corporation. Apparently he’s after Iridium because a) It’s valuable and b) It can be used to open Vault v2.01. He’s eccentric, charismatic, egotistical and power hungry. The perfect antagonist. It was a toss up between him and Vaas for Character of the Year. The reason I went with Vaas in the was because Vaas didn’t own the company that would revive his enemies when they died. I get that he’s meant to be eccentric, but that’s a bit much, we’re on the same level as needlessly complicated ways to kill Bond here.

Now for my final thought. I’m not going to recommend nor will I condemn Borderlands 2, because chances are you’ve already played it, completed it and decided for yourself if it was worth it or not. I personally find it’s wacky, gun-hoe, stop-start, action gameplay a bit shallow and pointless, there’s just nothing in it bar a few witty retorts to keep me interested. I’ve got a lot more interesting games on my desk including Far Cry 3, Spec Ops: The Line, hell I’d even say Silent Hill Downpour is more interesting than this, yet I’ve spent more time playing Borderlands 2 than any of the other. I keep asking myself why I keep playing this and not any of the others. Maybe it’s because my inability to leave something incomplete… Yeah, that’ll do.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (PC, PS3, Wii, XBOX 360)

Christmas and New Year have come and gone and with it I received a wealth of new games in which to play and share my opinion on. This week isn’t one of them but it was a game that I did get the opportunity to play over the festive period. A game that has a bigger following than Charlie Sheen and OK magazine. The most recent game in a series that started off a bit bland but after a change of scenery popularity rose immediately, only to then become horribly clique and predictable. Ladies and Gentleman. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

The Call of Duty series started as most series around war do with re-enacting the 2nd World War in the most unrealistic and stomach turningly patriotic way. For 3 instalments the series found medium success never really rising above it’s peers, such as Medal of Honour and Battlefield. It was only when the series switched to Modern Warfare in which as the name suggests is about warfare in modern times did the series find that edge that first person shooters were missing. It was the first to really add a story to the first person shooter and bring it to the masses. There was the Half-Life series but that always seemed a bit too snobbish to be mingling with the console playing plebs, but I digress. Previous FPS’s had stories but they just hung around with nothing better to do. Call of Duty 4 actually integrated the story into the game in such a way that it neither outshone or was outshone by the gameplay. This included a scene that I still hold to my heart, the nuke scene, where funny enough a nuclear explosion is detonated in the vicinity of fleeing Rangers to which you quantum leap into the perspective of a lone Ranger slowing dying in the fallout, alone and unloved thousands of miles away from home. Although it adds nothing to the story as an artistic feature it is pretty amazing. After trying to bring what worked in Modern Warfare back to the past with World of War, Modern Warfare found a sequel. Modern Warfare 2 which took the intense raspberry with white chocolate swirls and real fruity bits flavour of the original and made it bland vanilla. Not that there’s anything wrong with vanilla but it is one of the blander ice cream flavours out there. Then came Black Ops which had a story so out of whack I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers were sectioned for it.

Then finally we get to Modern Warfare 3. What seems to be the finale of the Modern Warfare series (I assume this because it’s the only one of the 3 that didn’t end on a cliff-hanger). You’ll be happy to know that the series continues it’s downhill slope from the peak of Modern Warfare. It’s the same game we’ve seen before but with new faces and a slight graphical upgrade. The same old missions are there, the stealth mission, the infiltration mission, the gunship mission, the ambush mission etc. The only real gameplay difference I noticed was that some guns have 2 sights on them. Fuck me, how long do you think it took Infinity Ward to come up with that stroke of genius? Imagine the development meeting when coming up with that beauty of an idea. “Ok, We need a USP (That’s Unique Selling Point for those who have no grasp of product development) for Modern Warfare 3, Go”, “I can never decide between using the Dot of the ACOG sight. Could we have both on the same gun”, “Fuck it, that’ll have to do. Lunch Time”. You really earned your pay that day guys didn’t you?

Now when people think of the Modern Warfare series, people tend to think of controversy and pushing the moral boundaries. Man dying slowly and painfully in nuclear fallout in the first is defiantly a moving scene, although the game could have done without it, its inclusion defiantly elevated the game to a higher plain. In Modern Warfare 2 there was the shoot up of civilians in the Russian airport that got every anti-games activists knickers in such a twist that some of them are still trying to remove the knots to this day. This had the greatest in game effect out of the 3 scenes because never before in any modern game were we asked to take a gun and mow down innocent civilians. The strange thing about it was (for me anyway) was that I had no moral guilt in doing it. It didn’t have the same effect as the scene in Heavy Rain where you have to cut off the end of your finger or throwing the Companion Cube into an Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator. I think it’s due to a lack of empathy towards the gunned down civilians of Russia, to us they are just pixels which we have been told to kill. Unlike my previous 2 examples where we have spent the game playing through the perspective of the character in question or we have had empathy towards the Companion Cube drilled into us through GLaDOS’s messages, telling us that the cube loves us and that we love it. Returning to the matter at hand we have the 3rd scene where we see a child explode in front of us. Although in truth the child basically disappears as soon as the explosion appears. This scene unlike the other two probably worsened my opinion of the game (not due to the killing of children, that’s a completely different kettle of fish). The main reason for this is it’s irrelevance to the game, if it were removed from the game it would not hamper my gameplay experience in the slightest. Sure I could play it in media sensitive mode “aka Pussy mode”, but the niggling thought would still be in the back of my mind that that scene is still there and is only there as a shock awe tactic and to try and generate media attention to which it ended up doing very little of both.

I’ve neglected to mention anything to do with the actual gameplay throughout this review mainly because if you’ve played any of the Call of Duty games past Modern Warfare you know what the gameplay is going to be like. Infinity Ward like to stick to what they know and by the looks of it Infinity Ward have been glued, stapled, riveted and welded to the Modern Warfare formula. The single player is horribly short and can easily be completed in an afternoon. The multi-player is exactly the same as Modern Warfare 2 but with a few extra gameplay modifications and game types, which is the same as Modern Warfare but with a few extra gameplay modifications and game types. It seems Infinity Ward can release an update for their multi-player and charge £40+ for it because it has a singleplayer campaign hanging off it like a tumorous lobe. Infinity Ward may not be great game developers but they are master business men. What does interest me though is the Special-Op missions. I must have spent a good couple of days or so with my brother trying to 3 star a lot of them. Like a series of puzzles that need solving, once you start you won’t be satisfied until you get all of them.

To be honest Modern Warfare 3 was never going to go down favourably with me anyway. I’ve always seen the Modern Warfare series as the very pinnacle of what I despise about the gaming industry. Soulless corporations having the ability to release any kind of mind numbing bile and have it lapped up by the unthinking masses. I like to have faith that people will buy a game because it’s good rather than because it’s adverts are plastered everywhere. Modern Warfare is one of those games where you cannot escape the adverts for it. It was plastered all over television, all over the internet, hell it was plastered all over the buildings in the city centre. This is why I usually try to rely on user reviews on how good a game is before I buy it. Professional reviewers I find are too eager to hand out good reviews to games that really don’t deserve it. I don’t really like the use of scores, even though in a perfect world they can give us a direct comparison between one game and another, but it’s just that, “In a perfect world”. All scores are based on personal opinion, for example I would give a game with a better story a better score than that which had better gameplay. Not only that, the sheer amount of criteria that has to be taken into consideration to give a fair score is massive. Then to top it all off scores will change with the passing of times. As the years pass opinions change and as they change scores would change.

Now my final thought.  The Modern Warfare series reshaped the first person shooter genre giving it that artistic flare previous FPS’s were missing. Although the first game struck gold in the end this proved to be a  disadvantage to the development team. Both games that followed seemed to try too hard in trying to prove their worth over the original and both fall flat of their faces. Although this has never been a bother to Infinity Ward since each game has made enough money to pay the Dalai Lama to run through the streets of Kent, bollock naked, singing “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”. Lets just hope that this is the end of the Modern Warfare era, because if I hear that Modern Warfare 4 is in production which includes Captain Price and Soap have full uncensored gay sex I will not be happy. Even less so knowing Soap died in the 3rd game.

Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)

 

I was originally planning on reviewing Oblivion this week which would make sense with Skyrim coming out on Friday. Although with me starting work and university work piling up I’ve not really had much of a chance to give it a decent replay and take notes so instead I’m dragging out the first review I posted on Amazon and revamping it to version 2.0.
About a week ago on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. Charlie Higson was debating with Ekow Eshun (he’s the former director of the UK’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, just in case you didn’t know) whether or not video games could be classed as art or not? They concluded that computer games entertain therefore they are entertainment. I disagree, Video can be entertaining and be classed as art. Why can’t computer games. I’m hoping with this review I can spread my views on the debate. Although it’s probably going to have all the effectiveness of gobbing in a river I’m still going to make my point dam it. Anyway here’s Valkyria Chronicles.
First of all let me say that it is a very pretty game. With the water colour effect and the anime style graphics, you can’t help but be drawn into the beauty of the game. Also to back this up it has a beautiful score and soundtrack. So much so that I actually got a hold of a copy of the soundtrack. The song “A Love Passed on” (or “Succeeded Wish” in the Japanese version) when I first it I was breathless and almost paralysed by it’s emotional depth and melodies (I can speak Radio Four too).
That’s enough about the arty farty stuff, at the end of the day whether or not it is art it’s still a game so lets talk about that. The game-play itself is described as being a chapter based RPG although the combat is more of a mixture of real-time and turn-based strategy along with a small amount of 3rd person shooter, despite how complicated it sounds the game play does flow fairly smoothly at times. Like every game I’ve ever played it’s not without it’s flaws, when controlling a character enemies will shoot you and only you until you start pointing guns, at which point shit gets serious and enemies are too worried about finding new briefs to replace their now soiled ones to fire back. Although this concept doesn’t exactly sound realistic it still seems somewhat natural if a bit awkward to begin with. l applaud SEGA for it. It’s something different occupying a market current overloaded with so many 1st person shooters you’d think they were part of some sort of secret conspiracy to eradicate all the other game genres starting with point-and-click adventure games… but that’s just silly (yes… silly, ha ha ha). It’s a brightly coloured Poison Dart frog swimming in a bond of Bull Frogs. Sure touching it may cause death to you and others around you but at least it looks pretty (not a bad analogy that one).
The story is stereotypical of any war based anime, actually, forget the whole anime bit. Does anyone remember that slight disagreement back in Europe between 1939 and 1945 between the Allied Forces and the Nazi’s and Friends? The story is basically that but in water colour. Ok I give, it’s a bit more zoomed in than that to make it more personal and in-depth. This means you get a real understanding of all the characters, the ones that matter anyway. Their are alot of characters there that are really only there to make up the numbers but they can die at your leisure if you so wish. With a few of the main characters I developed somewhat of an fondness for which is why it feels extra bad when the plot delivers an emotional kick to the balls mid way through the game.
 
If you kind of person that find the Japanese offensive (and I don’t know why you should. They are delightful little fellows, although they are a bit weird. I mean they like dating sims) you’ll find the story offensively Japanese. In a nutshell the lead character is Welkin Gunther who’s late farther was a general in the first Europan War. When Welkin’s home gets invaded by the empire at the start of the second Europan war he enlists to the militia and captains Squad 7 in order to defend his home country because the head of the militia decides that leadership is one of the better qualities shared via genetics, or by virtue that he was the only member militia to bring his own tank.
 
One minor annoyance is having to sit through alot of cut scenes between each mission but you really don’t mind because it drives plot and skipping them would mean missing out on alot of the pwitty pictures. This minor annoyance is still dwarfed by it’s biggest problem. Hands up who likes Auto-Save? ok, I’ll assume everyone put their hands up. I do too, although apparently SEGA doesn’t. Many a time I fell victim to the onslaught of the Aryan Race only to find I last saved 3 battles ago and 60 billion cut scenes ago. I think I have the right to rage quit and give it a day or two until I start again. Despite my nit-pickings I think game deserved more attention than it got when it was released. For this I place the blame squarely on SEGA’s head for releasing it sandwiches between an array of big name games. It was released on the same say as Fallout 3 for Christ Sake. As unique as it was, it was never going to compete on the same level as that. There was also Fable 2, Modern Warfare 3, LittleBigPlanet, Saints Row 2 on the list for release within that period. Would like me to stop pointing out your monumental fuck-up SEGA? Well too bad because I still have more, Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, Mirrors Edge. The only reason I had interest in the game before release was because on the off chance I found and downloaded a demo of the game. Back when the PSN wasn’t infested with sub menu after sub menu and diamonds in the rough such as Valkyria Chronicles were easy enough to find. I think I’ve made my point. Despite what I’ve just said those who have played the game seemed to enjoy it since it has a strong underground fan base, although I’m guessing it was mostly in Japan given that they commissioned and released both a manga and anime series about it as well as 2 sequels, but much to my distaste it was decided by the powers that be that the PSP was the best place for them. Who stills plays on a PSP in this day and age. I stopped playing mine a good 2 years before this was released let alone their sequels.

Now to the final point, If you are Japanese or love anything from Japan, get it because you’ll love every minute of it. Those who don’t might get a see it as being somewhere between alright and an offence to all 5 senses.
 
Oh shit I forgot I was supposed to be arguing my case for computer games being a form of art…
 
Did I mention it looks pretty?