Sunday, 10 January 2010

More catch-up: Gaming in 2009

Continuing to exploit our confinement to quarters to catch-up on my blogging, a round-up of the games that I played in 2009 ...

Halo 2
Mildly fun, but generally disappointing. I really enjoyed the original Halo, but found this far too much of a retread to distinguish it. And the tweaks that did distinguish it, for instance the back-and-forth switch of player perspective between the Master Chief and the Arbiter, really didn't work for me. While switching narrative viewpoint works fine in non-interactive fiction like books and films, it's jarring when you're in charge of things. Furthermore, the game ends, shamelessly, on a cliffhanger, but there's not the slightest sign of its sequel being released on PC. Not a feature that endeared the game to me. All that said, it did contain a few excellent science fiction vistas to take in from time to time, so it wasn't a complete loss. But it's very far from the step-up that one expects from gaming sequels.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Magnificent, but ever so slightly flawed. Definitely a worthy successor to its preceding titles, with a greatly enriched game environment and a much more involving and cinematic plot. Particular highlights are Liberty City itself (and its thousands of residents), the biting satire (helped by the immigrant player character's viewpoint) and a surprisingly bitter conclusion (so much for the American Dream). Potential mistakes by the developers were the regular and intrusive requests by the player character's "cazzan" to socialise, and the ditching of the RPG (role-playing, not rocket-propelled) elements that gave San Andreas an extra level of depth. The game's much-vaunted "morality" choices were also a bit thinner on the ground than I'd expected, and had practically no impact on my progress. Much as with San Andreas, I began the game hoping that I'd be able to impress something of my own morality onto Niko Bellic, but I quickly wound up being channelled into excessively (if enjoyably) violent pathways by the game's mechanics. Still, it's a highly enjoyable, immersive and memorable title. I still remember my first boat ride around a misty Algonquin at dawn to the strains of Philip Glass.

Just Cause
Very much a GTA wannabe, but one largely lacking in the depth, polish and humour of the titles it's mimicking. A major plus is the beautiful game environment, which includes perfect tropical beaches, spectacular atmospheric effects and gorgeous jungles. All of which are rendered brilliantly from a technical standpoint. But the game falls flat when it comes to gameplay, with repetitive territory-grabbing missions, supersensitive vehicle controls and unconvincing AI opponents. Furthermore, in playing the CIA as straight-shooting white hats it also misses what could have been some great tricks with the plotline. I kept hoping the plot would twist into my player character working out he was just some Company stooge doing the evil bidding of The Man, or that the WMDs ostensibly owned by the dictator I was set on toppling would turn out to be phantoms. But no dice - in the end all I got was a totally cliched and unimaginative plotline. All that said, I still got a lot of pleasure alternatively drinking in the natural beauty of San Esperito and strafing it with missiles from my helicopter.

Mass Effect
Bar its science fiction setting and generally high rating, all I knew going in was that this game had caused a minor stir in the US for its purported sexual content. What was "shocking" to me was how tame, and how brief, this content actually turned out to be. These people really need to get out more often. Ironically, Mass Effect is easily the most sophisticated of the titles in this round-up when it comes to morality. Unlike GTA IV, Mass Effect both allows the player a lot of freedom to behave however they choose, but this latitude comes with consequences (though not ones that go so far as to prevent completion). As I played through the game I unwittingly revealed myself as a goody-two-shoes on the galactic stage of Mass Effect, ultimately finishing up practically a saint (I'd be lying if I didn't admit to getting a little buzz out of polishing my reputation to a dazzling shine). This gaming aspect is a new one to me, but I understand it's been in other titles for years. Anyhow, Mass Effect is otherwise a rather rich sci-fi yarn centred largely on exploration (by foot, vehicle and spaceship) and shooting space aliens. The former part of this reminded me somewhat of the fun I had almost two decades ago in the Gamma System (ahhh, nostalgia ...). The latter part (the shooting) is pretty competently done, although I think GTA IV is easily several steps ahead. A big plus for me is that its set-up is largely an intelligent raid on science fiction novels rather than a rehash of the kind of "Cowboys-and-Indians-in-Space" that makes up 90% of cinematic and televisual treatments. The developers have gone to some lengths to plausibly back-fill what's already a nicely twisty sci-fi plotline. However, there are also parts, notably the increasingly repetitive excursions to identical remote facilities, where cut-and-paste has clearly taken the place of careful thought. Still, the central missions have a lot more attention lavished on them, and are frequently both pleasingly complex and set in beautiful, extraterrestrial locations. Returning to the story itself, one bum note that the science fiction strikes is the virtual apartheid against AIs. They're universally portrayed as hostile to "organics" if not actually evil - even, as with the Geth, if they've previously been enslaved by said enlightened "organics". Were it not for the fact that they were constantly trying to take my head off with a hi-tech shotgun, I'd have been siding with them. This moral blind spot reminded me of something similar in a more hackneyed piece of "science fiction": Star Wars. There (in the Old Republic sense), the Jedi Knights are presiding over a galaxy in which slavery is pretty much OK (cf. Anakin Skywalker's mum). Anyway, another title to add to the "good, but slightly flawed" pile.

So, that was 2009. Things are already looking up for 2010 with Fallout 3, but that'll have to wait for another time.


Deditos said...

Well, last year I was still locked in a time warp having for the first time enjoyed,

Half-Life 2 (superb),
GTA: San Andreas (much, much better than Vice City),
Bioshock (still playing).

No doubt in a few years time I'll pick up a PS3 at a jumble sale and get to play GTA:IV. I've also been having fun playing Mercenary on a Spectrum emulator this last week, but I think could just be the sign of a nascent mid-life crisis...

Plumbago said...

You, sir, have excellent taste in videogames. And the same sort of strategy that I (generally; GTA IV being an exception) have: getting to games late in the day so that an old, low-end PC can comfortably play them.

That said, I'm afraid that I don't have the same impressive degree of self-control that you seem to have. By contrast, I rushed out to play (the superlative) HL2 when it was first released in 2004 (necessitating the costly purchase of a new graphics card).

I did wait for San Andreas though, and found it just simply magnificent. It was the first I'd ever played GTA-wise, and I was totally smitten. While GTA IV is technically better, it isn't anywhere near as crammed with random possibilities (or beautiful landscapes).

As you may have noticed, I've previously blogged BioShock ...

Anyhow, I, too, have worried about the appeal of nostalgia-inducing videogames, and the veiled threat of mid-life crisis. But it's not arrived yet, so I've kind-of gotten used to the feeling, and now discount the possibility. Of course, it helps that "classic games" are generally shockingly weak on replay! That certainly keeps one in the present (or 2004 at least).

P.S. Great xkcd cartoon! I'd not seen that one before, but I totally self-identify.