Vanquish Review

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If you chucked Master Chief's armour, Marcus Fenix's attitude and a pinch of Mass Effect's Geth into a blender, you might end up with something close to Vanquish. Shinji Mikami's latest creation centers on DARPA operative Sam Gideon as he power-slides around a space colony turned death ray recently occupied by Russians and their robots.

The beating heart of the game is Japanese re-imagining of an old-school shooter where the emphasis is on having fun with a gruff protagonist, and where the learning curve and narrative arc is almost non-existent. If you're looking for a game that doesn't even give you a chance to scratch your itchy trigger finger then Vanquish delivers, joyously.

Speaking of triggers, you will technically only be pulling one; though your Battlefield Logic Adaptable Electronic Weapons System (or BLADE, if you will) cannily transforms into any of three weapons at a time, with pickups throughout the missions giving you the opportunity to customise and upgrade your layout. The ordinance is a wonderful mix of rapid-fire machine guns, multi-homing lasers and disk launchers, and there's a pleasingly varied selection of gleaming robotic death-dealers to try them out on. And try them out you will. Whether it's vaulting over cover in slow-motion to blast the head off a charging mech or hijacking a walking gun platform, Vanquish has been built from the ground up to make looking like a hardcore pro a cinch. Thankfully it's intuitive, so that your brain can attempt to register all that's happening on screen; if you really struggle there's always 'casual-auto' mode.

Thanks to the linear mission structure you'll never be out of the action long. The missions are straightforward jaunts from A to B, but the on-rails sections and occasional branching routes are a nice change of pace.

The best part of these brief respites is the chance to admire your surroundings. The vibrant reds of your cannon fodder, the ring-world via Citadel design of the colony and even, more latterly, the lush green of a forest, all make Vanquish visually striking. Even better; despite robot ex-limbs flying past your head as you weave through a hailstorm of bullets and explosions, Vanquish doesn't drop a frame. The HUD is non-intrusive and the overall effect is of a quicksilver moving tapestry of chaos.

Vanquish might feel too clinical however, were not for Platinum Games' offbeat humour. The repartee between Lt. Col. Robert Burns and Sam for example, or the robots dancing to a giant boom-box that transforms into a mini-gun. It's self-reflexive and it works; Gideon's frequent wry smile likely to be mirrored by your own.

Hyper-kinetic and hyper-explosive, Vanquish is that rare beast; a genuine new look at the third person shooter. The narrative is almost completely ridiculous and it's not going to last you longer than 10 hours (including the tactical challenges) but at times the action is breathtaking. Even next to Bayonetta, Vanquish might well be Platinum games' best yet.

RPGs Through The Looking Glass: Or 'I love the smell of a burning village...'

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'I love the smell of a burning village in the morning'

We are all, I deign to assume, very if not overly familiar with the RPG trope of having your village burned down prompting a quest for enlightenment, revenge, love, and quite possible cookies. We have all suffered the downcast, surly stare of a protagonist with so much angst holding his hair up that he could very well be considered a bona fide psychopath by any reputable physician. We all know and love RPG conventions, but i'll be damned to an eternity of grinding if it's not time for a change.

Allow me to paint the scene.

The game opens with a idyllic hamlet, set in an impossibly loving, tranquil spirit of community and populated by farmers, woodcutters, and deviants hellbent on hiding peoples' stuff in a random assortment of containers. You, as the character, as a young boy, must complete some menial but educational tasks to learn the layout and controls; although it's not long before you hear whispers of war and, upon returning to your quaint home after gathering herbs in a nearby forest, find the whole place in flames.

Slow dissolve to a knight, clad in obsidian armour, laughing manically at the destruction surrounding him. The in-game cutscene, it seems, is static. That is, until you realise with horror in your breast, that you are no longer ina cut-scene, and you are in fact in control of the antagonist. Your task is completed, but the 'protagonist' still eludes you, and so must return to your Baronetcy to plan the next part of your search.

Imagine the moral compas of games such as this turned on your head, as your character, not neccessarily evil but loyal to his orders, is hunted mercilessly by a deranged survivor of the burning village, to the point where he becomes, if anything, more 'evil' than you.

Imagine if instead of a brooding teen, you were in control of a mature, contented and already-formidable warrior, whose progression through the game is not measured in more levels, more items, but in he knowledge he gains, the characters he can recruit, the command he respects.

The sad thing is, games like this will almost certainly never happen. Ok, I concede that Overlord has the right idea, but it's still not an RPG, a bona-fide turning the genre on its head kind of game. Ok, in The Darkness you play a very definite anti-hero, as you do in numerous other games, but the morality is still stale; you are killing people who 'deserve' to be killed, and the only reason your halo remains out of reach is because you have no qualms about killing them. What this genre needs is a really, genuinely refreshing take on matters. Hey, game devs, just ask me if you're really curious; i'll write you up a script and a premise for a game that is involving, unique, and most importantly of all, engages with, plays with, and ultimately subverts peoples expectations.

So, i'm curious; how would YOU guys go about doing it? Tell me; what would the main character be like? The setting, the plot. Let's hear it!



Sexbox360: Or What Have We Learned From Hot Coffee and Blue Aliens?

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Sexbox 360


What have learned from blue aliens and hot coffee?

Before you get your hopes up, you smut-ridden leery voyeur you, details about the newly confirmed XXX version of Microsoft's newest console venture will not be disclosed herein. Whilst the two new community massage games do suggest a sly ushering in of a whole (excuse the pun...) new kind of home entertainment system, today we are a more, shall we say, urbane mood.

That is the matter of sex. Sex in games. In game sex. In game nudity. Penises. Penii? Well that is a perennial debate so I will shy away like so many chaste maidens from that particular issue.

I digress. The Lost and Damned, whilst developed by an (aptly-named) studio who already have a good pedigree in controversy, is still managing to shock, delight, confuse many with its cock-sure depiction of a male member (of congress, no less). I admit at this point that I have not yet played it, but my interest lies not in gauging the quality of the expansion pack, more in the issues that it is raising (excuse, again, the pun) intentionally or otherwise.

For one, if we as a community of gamers wish to be granted ever-more respect by the mainstream media, we must, as a rule, respond to issues of sex and nudity in a mature fashion. I don't wish to imply that people are not, just that it is an important foundation to lay.

We must be able to enter into a dialogue about sex in games in the same way as developers must be able to depict it in such a way as to facilitate mature discussion. Now, Japanese developers have a vivid history of sex games, but cultural differences abound - I'm talking about the way forward for a western audience and industry. What have we learnt from Hot Coffee, J. Thompson and blue aliens?

Mass Effect spawned an absolutely hilarious reaction in the media:

Aside from being laughably-researched (my favourite line is 'the ability of players to engage in graphic sex') the feature highlights all that is wrong with the interaction between the mainstream and video games, but especially surrounding the whole issue of what is, ultimately, no matter how many different religious groups believe otherwise, a perfectly natural act. Again, fun as it would be, I'm not offering a diatribe against either Fox, the media, religion, your mum, or Bioware, the twisted, predatory corrupting influence that they are.

Let's cut to the chase:

I propose that the only way we are going to make progress in the matter, is for more games to have sex featured in them. The problem is how to present it. The power of suggestion is as powerful as ever, and to my mind the sex scene in Mass Effect is both tasteful and effective. 'Sleeping' with hookers in Grand Theft Auto is not tasteful but it's certainly not offensive or gratuitous. So far so good. Let's take a look at a few more examples.

Sex in Fallout 3 is possible but inconsequential and unrewarding. A non-committal depiction shall we say. Fable only depicts the act of coitus audibly, but will make you think about the consequences, be they positive or negative. I call this a morally neutral stance. Both are fine, but one is lacking in progressive though, understandable after the fiasco that the ratings boards conjured over the naming of in-game drugs.

But where is the sex that adds to the drama? Think about the potential of sex scenes in films and literature to really evoke emotions, to create powerful drama and motivations between characters. How games developers, backed into a corner by ratings boards and neurotic censorship endorsed by a morally perplexed bill-board society continue to shy away from a responsible yet vivid depiction of all things sexual baffles me.

I'm hoping that Heavy Rain, with its ostensibly 'life-life' portrayal of a believable scenario will feature a real, bar-setting sexual event or relationship. If games are ever going to cross over the threshold from entertainment to art-form, from wasted artistic potential to responsible medium of expression, we all need to get virtually laid a little more.


Case #2: Recession Gaming Turnaround!

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Case #2: Recession Gaming Turnaround!

(Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the game)

Recession. It's a bit of a dirty word right now, in the same way as the term 'credit crunch' conjures images of an oversized, currency hungry pac-man, slowly chipping away at those reserves of cash usually calmly reserved for the winter gaming deluge. 'How', I hear you plead pitifully, 'can I possibly afford Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, Prince of Persia, LittleBigPlanet, whilst food and petrol, public transport and top hats are getting ever more expensive?' With Epic's portentous talk of penalising people who buy used games, the situation looks ever more grim.

There is however, an intriguing possibility, one that occurred to me whilst traversing the gorgeous African countryside, sun setting on a landscape littered with strife and...well, diamonds left lying around in bushes by mercenary amnesiacs. The positive possibility is this: Gaming will follow the same fate that cinema did. Let me set the scene, and you tell me if it sounds familiar.

Starting out, in the very first instance, as a moving image created by spinning a slotted wheel of thick paper around a stick, 'moving pictures' slowly made the progression into 'Nickelodeons'; minute long films that cost a nickel and were viewed through an eyepiece in the early 20th century. It wasn't long until production contexts started to change, and a few bright sparks had the idea of making some serious money from them. Of course, the collapse of Wall Street, whose brightest minds were fixed firmly on the impending crunch at the same time, was soon to change everything. The crash of 1929 affected the whole world, but more immediately plunged America into a despondent state of poverty and joblessness (much like the Gears of War 2 Lancer edition...) Films, however, marketed to the masses as harmless escapism, continued to be popular, and for many were the sole item of expenditure. Thousands would pay, week in week out, to see the same film again - just because it meant an escape from the harsh reality of their lives. Throughout this period films were still considered as 'pulp fiction', aspiring to nothing more than a few laughs, a few tears, and a little profit. Soon after however, and to this day, the film industry has been growing in popularity, revenue, profile, and numbers.

Ring any bells..?

I'm not saying by any means that what we're suffering now is in any way as severe as the wall street crash and the Great Depression, but the parallels remain. The earliest games, we have learned, were nothing more than curious experiments. Pong, however, entertained as much as it invited interested sighs. For years, computer games were seen as a primary pastime of geeks and computer programmers, and nothing much was done to change the status quo. To skip forward a few years, we're slap bang in the middle of a 'gaming as art' debate that no-one in the mainstream media seems to take seriously, and similarly stuck in the middle of a global economic crisis, where, purportedly, one of the only survivors will be the gaming industry. Technology is advancing, retailers such as HMV normally famous, as their logo suggests, for music have admitted a probably reliance on games for their best profit margins. Despite earning bugger all, an exact sum rendered even more hopeless by inflation, I still managed to buy Fable 2, Farcry 2, Fallout 3 and more besides, within weeks of their release dates.

What is to say, that following this downturn, gaming won't rise like a phoenix from the ashes of other industries? What's to say that the surge of indie developers, increasingly common shocks such as EA developing good, original IPs, isn't pointing to an apocryphal game in the near future, lauded by The Guardian as well as by Edge for its artistic sensibilities, poetic control scheme, and finely tuned sense of pwnage? If we continue this parallel, somewhat ironically, we see the Wii to represent the Hollywood Blockbusters, or perhaps the mainstream studio, whereas PS3, Xbox360 and the DS are increasingly looking like the companies/studios home to the really interesting games for the discerning gamer. I'm talking LittleBigPlanet, Mirror's Edge (despite its regressive OldSkool flaws) and The World Ends With You.

With the advent of the Wii, combined with the insanely popular Madden, Fifa/Pro and NHL series', along with the DS, PSP and now the iPhone, gaming has been blown wide open, available and appealing to anyone with a molecule of creativity or the desire for escapist entertainment. With better value for money (often), social aspects and availability, I'm confident that we may well see computer games replace cinema as the dominant escapist mode. Roll on pretentious indie art house gaming...oh wait, Jonathon Blow, you already did. May you be the first of many.


Invisible Walls: The Bane of Video Games and Mime Artists Worldwide.

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So as you might have gleaned from my bedazzling Topic Title, I have an issue with invisible walls in games. Well, more accurately, as you might have gleaned from your telepathic exploration of the dark recesses of my craven mind, my friend Henry managed to talk about them, as well as the rule of Golden Proportions in the same sentence. However, (I know, I know) I digress:

Are invisible walls a blessing in disguise, or an easy short-cut for myopic game developers? And what is more, what does the inclusion of invisible walls in games say about game designers in general?

You know the type; 'Oh' you might gleefully think/say/e-mail to yourself, 'I wonder what would happen if I snuck through this gap and...'

And what? Your grimace is matched only by your xboxlive private chat channel in its rancour. I personally put it down to one, plain old cause: Lazy programming.

Example in case: In Assassins Creed there are, at times, invisible walls representing blocks to your memory. This is a valid justifcation, and I suppose technically a moot point as the walls aren't quite invisible. The shimmering blue haze acts as a sharp reminder of the over-arching sci-fi plot and works within the context. The open world sections have no invisible walls either, but the fact they are mostly devoid of any points of interest is a whole other story..!

In past GTA games, as well as the new LOTR game Conquest, along with games too numerous to mention (but mentioning Assassins Creed again...), designers have compromised. 'We hate invisible walls as much as the next wo/man' I imagine them intoning, a sympathetic shrug of the shoulders as accompaniment, 'But we can't just let the player go anywhere they want...[shouts of 'anarchy, fie on you!' resound in the distance...] so we'll make water lethal. After all people drown..'

Yeah right, if they can't bleedin' swim! Penny-Arcade has duly noted such surreality:

Their point is not related explicitly to mine, but it serves the same purpose. Invisible walls distract, ruin the illusion, suspend your suspension of disbelief - all harsh penalties for a diligent consumer.

Conversely, they offer a streamlining effect. Imagine a game where you truly could go anywhere. Imagine what Oblivion would be like if you trekked for ten minutes of real-time across lush countryside (with procedurally generated foliage, natch) only to come to a ocean, with no treasure chest, no epic monster, possessed of phat loot or otherwise to greet you. (No..i am not bitter...AM NOT BITTER) Imagine being able to fall off any deadly ledge having not saved in an hour. Wait...why do so many games let you fall of the edge without returning you to said ledge...bring me back my invisible walls! Imagine, if your creative psycho-visual skills are not drained by my incessant demands at this point, a game so bewilderingly large and free-form that you literally have no idea what you are supposed to do, and as a result running crying from your console.

My solution is easy. Developers, level designers, what have you, please excersise a modicum of restraint in your invisible walling in. Trained assassins and gen-u-ine bad-asses should be able to swim better than a panicked piglet. By the same token, why allow arbitrary frustration on the players part for NOT putting in invisible walls in the rare cases that they WOULD be beneficial (Here's looking at you Marvel UA...). What's wrong with extending your prized 'immersion' factor to these details? Please - be CREATIVE, if you don't want a player to go somewhere, do something, don't make them feel like they can't just because of some whim, some lazy decision to reinforce linearity.

And finally I ask you 'orrible lot: Any suggestions? Any infamous or much loved examples of either side of the coin? Feed (me) back!