What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week -October 1st

It’s that time of year when we all start talking about how it’s October already, and isn’t it going dark soon, and why are the supermarkets selling mince pies already, don’t they realise they’ll need to be eaten long before Santa has even considered checking the oil level in his sleigh? For introverted types like me, who prefer to stay indoors whenever possible, only venturing outdoors when I really have to, this is a great time of year. The increasingly inclement weather makes not going out seem a choice that no longer carries with it the guilt and worry about vitamin D deficiency that goes along with the warmer months. 

Ni No Kuni: I’ve finally made it past the point in the game where I gave last time, and have now managed to get access to a boat, thanks to what in retrospect was a very surreal encounter with a cheese-obsessed giant cow-woman. It did seem to make sense at the time. 

It seems ages since the last time I played a JRPG that followed as traditional a route as Ni No Kuni. No doubt it in a few hours I’ll get an airship or some similar flying thingummy. I’m still enjoying it so far, mainly because the game just oozes charm through all its various pores. It is pretty grindy, though, and not a game for those who don’t like lots of backtracking and fighting the same monsters. 

Red Dwarf XI: Back in my teenage years when, if you can believe such a thing, I was even more socially awkward than I am now, I was for a period obsessed with Red Dwarf. This was around the period of the sixth series, the last one that saw Rob Grant take part in the writing and, in a sense, the end of an era of what I’d consider ‘proper’ RD. Everything since then has never been quite as good, from the frankly awful seventh series through to the bizarre Coronation Street crossover that was Back to Earth. Anybody who was read the two third books in the novel series – Rob Grant’s Backwards and Doug Naylor’s Last Human – will have more than a rather sneaking suspicion that Grant was the funnier of the two writers, and his absence from all the later series of Red Dwarf has been keenly felt. 

Given all this, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I watched the first episode of Red Dwarf XI, which premiered on Dave the other week. I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised – there were a few moments that made me genuinely laugh out loud, some clever concepts and the decision to move back to using models for the special effects is undeniably a good one. The best bits were those that just featured the crew being the crew, arguably perhaps the most traditional sitcom bits. As I’ve often found with a lot of the later Dwarf stuff, the sci-fi narrative portions are the weakest. 

The cast are as good as ever, by this point so comfortable in their roles that it must be second nature to them by now. And, yes, it still makes you wish Chris Barrie was in more things (surely somebody somewhere other than me would like a one-off revival of The Brittas Empire?).

All credit to Dave as well, aside from a mostly unknown (save for Kevin Eldon) supporting cast, the lack of budget doesn’t show. This looks every bit as impressive as you remember the old shows looking.

Trump vs. Clinton: The US presidential election seems like it’s in need of a reboot. I don’t envy the choices of the American people, having to select either the stereotypical politician Clinton, who comes across as some kind of automatron whose moral programming has become corrupted, and Trump who is, well, Donald Trump. The first debate between them was a fascinating 90 minutes, particularly from the perspective of an Englishman. The differences between the two are stark, although not perhaps quite as much as they would have been had Sanders won the Democratic nomination.

To me, Trump is a man who needs to stop talking about a third of the way into every paragraph. Some of his policies are sensible (if you’re of the more right-wing persuasion), it’s just rather unfortunate that they tend to be followed up with lunacy. Clinton, on the other hand, lacks the charm of her husband and often came across as smug, which is amazing when you consider her competition. 

A fascinating show, though. Thank God it’s not real. 

Oh.

What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week – 17th September

I wasn’t kidding before when I said I’d forget to do this regularly. Hey-ho.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD: I’m enjoying Twilight Princess a lot more than I remember from before, I think mainly because I’m taking it in small doses rather than just playing straight through it. More so than other Zeldas, TP seems to suffer a fair bit from ‘dungeon fatigue’, where the game just keeps on giving you dungeon after dungeon at the end. I don’t think it helps that the standard of dungeons is a little inconsistent either. Last week I’d made it through the fantastic Snow Peak Ruins, easily one of the best dungeons if the game if not the series as a whole. This week I was dumped into the rather drab City in the Sky, which has so much potential but turns out to be a slightly dull slog involving lots of hanging on grates with with the claw-hooks waiting for another grate to turn around. Still, I’m being picky here: even at it’s worst, Twilight Princess is a fantastic game.

Ni No Kuni: I’m not really sure why I’ve started playing this again, but it probably has something do with the trailers of the sequel I keep seeing. I never made it all that far into the game back when it first came out; hopefully I’ll manage a bit more this time around. Man, this is a lovely game. Level 5 stuff normally looks great anyway, and the Studio Ghibli input here just adds an extra layer of loveliness to it. Everything is beautiful, from the cartoon graphics, to the animations, to the interface and the music. Especially the music. Performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the soundtrack is some of the best original music I’ve heard in a game for ages. Gameplay-wise, Ni No Kuni isn’t perhaps quite as good as its presentation. The combat is decent enough, though perhaps could have done without as much emphasis on the Pokemon-esque familiar system. It’s a very gentle tale, as well, which does have the slight negative effect that it can seems a little on the slow side, at least in the bit I’ve played. As JRPGs go, though, this is up there with the very best of them.

On… Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.

Adam Jensen, antagonist of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this it’s sequel, is cool. He looks cool, what with his black trench coat, carbon-fibre death arms and beard so pointy you could cut glass with it. He sounds cool, too, with his delivery drier than the surface of Mars. In fact, he’s probably a bit too cool for his own good, as he often comes across as more an impartial observer of humanity than someone invested in it.

Maybe that’s deliberate: a comment perhaps on how Jensen, augmented with so many cybernetic implants that he’s got more physically in common with a toaster than you or I, has had a portion of his humanity taken away. Or perhaps it’s a way of providing players with a cipher that doesn’t attempt to stamp too much personality onto proceedings.

Whatever the reasoning (if there is one), Jensen’s attitude highlights one of the main problems with Mankind Divided, which otherwise does so much to fix the problems of Human Revolution and emphasise what it did right. On the positive side, this is a game that excels in providing player agency and freedom to make progress the way you want to. Pretty much every scenario in the game has multiple routes to completion. The more gung-ho of us can rattle through the levels obliterating opponents with a mixture of gunfire and augment-enhanced melee, whilst those more inclined to a sneaky-sneakster approach can hide in air vents, surprising enemies with a whack to the head or a tranquiliser dart between the eyes. Where Mankind Divided really shines is not just with the sheer number of options available, but how easily you can shift your strategy as scenarios change. Whilst the AI isn’t always wholly convincing, it does a decent job and the gameplay is the most emergent I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid V. This is no Assassin’s Creed with it’s multiple black-and-white fail-states.

You can tell it's a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.
You can tell it’s a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.

Presentation-wise, MD is also top-notch. The central hub city – Prague – is a beautifully rendered environment, with differing day-and-night states, complete with fantastic lighting effects. Several of the other levels also contain vistas that are worth just sitting back and looking at for a good few minutes. Character models are an improvement on Human Revolution, if still not quite first-class, and the various interface elements of the game are clean, crisp and with a consistent design motif.

Where Mankind Divided falls down is with its plot and the disconnect between game and narrative. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is one of those terms that gamers like to bandy about a lot, mainly because it sounds quite intelligent, and is often applied to titles such as Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s Hollywood-hero aesthetic in cut-scenes fails to mesh convincingly with his crazed-gun-man approach to combat encounters. Here the problem is that Deus Ex provides a world that is realistic, but where the actions of most players won’t be. My first instinct, for instance, when leaving Jensen’s apartment at the beginning of the game was to try and break into everyone else’s rooms in the building. Entering the top-secret Interpol headquarters, before going to my mission objective I preferred to wander around hacking people’s computers whilst they stood about ten feet away. Of course, you can argue that these were my play choices, but by allowing you the freedom to do these things and effectively incentivising them with XP rewards and consumables, the game is pushing you towards actions that don’t sit well with the narrative.

The plot also doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts off quite strong, with Jensen thrown into the middle of a conspiracy and then a terrorist attack, but following this it takes a while to get going again and then, when it does, it pretty much ends without much of a coda. I came away with the distinct feeling that I was missing not just the final chapter, but a whole volume. Perhaps this will come in DLC, though I can’t help but think the amount of story remaining really requires a whole new game.

Much has been made elsewhere of the political overtones of the game, in particular the segregation the narrative presents between augmented and ‘natural’ humans. This didn’t overly bother me, though at times it did seem to be laid on a little thick. Possibly the worst crime the game commits with regards to this is that it doesn’t provide a great deal of commentary to it; arguably this is down to the game’s primary aim to offer you as much agency as possible, but it does still come across as a bit empty.

Despite these nagging issues with the narrative, this is still most definitely a game worth playing. The sheer number of ways to play compensate somewhat for the relatively short length, and the top-notch presentation demonstrate that this is a game that’s had a lot of money spent on it.

Plus, Adam Jensen’s beard is cool.

Great Jensen's beard!
Great Jensen’s beard!

On… The Witcher 3 DLC

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: the DLC for The Witcher 3 is the best example of the form I’ve ever seen. There have been some good pieces of add-on content in the past (Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker, ME3: Citadel, Oblivion: Shivering Isles, etc.) but they are all trampled into the Velen mud by what CD Projekt Red have produced here.

Beware if you wish to read further: spoilers for the main Witcher 3 campaign as well as Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are contained herein.

Released late last year, Hearts of Stone was the first major piece of DLC and features around 10-15 hours worth of content. At first glance it might seem slightly uninspiring, not least of all because there’s no new area to explore. Well, actually that’s a bit of a lie: the expansion does provide new parts of Velen to traipse around in, but there’s no new ‘whole’ map area as such.

What makes HoS so fantastic though is its storyline. Whilst there are, as you would expect, a number of various sub-quests, the main meat of the package concerns Geralt’s encounters with Gaunter O’Dimm. Rather cleverly, this is a character who initially appeared right at the start of the main campaign in a role so subtle that most people (myself included) would have forgotten about it until reminded by the DLC. The character of Gaunter is fascinating – his exact nature never truly revealed, but there are hints enough that he is an incarnation of evil. Your slow re-introduction to him takes place over a series of quests, initially focusing around new character Olgierd von Everec. To begin with, Olgierd seems to be the antagonist, but it soon becomes apparent that instead he’s something of a sympathetic character, drawn too deep into a situation he can no longer control.

HoS in many ways makes for a better campaign than the Wild Hunt itself did: it has the advantage of taking place over a smaller scale, and thus becomes much more involving for the player. Whilst Wild Hunt was very, very good, the need for it to take in the political machinations of Nilfgaard and Redania (amongst others) often lent it a layer of abstraction. HoS has none of this, really, and instead focuses on a small set of characters whose motivations and actions you come to know intimately. Indeed, the most memorable parts of the DLC are perhaps those that deal with the smallest matters. The wedding scene, for instance, wickedly subverts expectations set by the main campaign and external touch-points like Game of Thrones by being pretty much uneventful. Yet it stays with you because of the wonderful character development it employs, plus a fair amount of humour.

By the time HoS ends you have a completely different view of the world it presented than you did when it started, and that’s much to its credit. The character of O’Dimm will stick long in the mind, his cavalier ambivalence and macabre wit making for one of the best villains I think I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Touissant, not in Arizona.
Touissant, not in Arizona.

The second expansion, Blood and Wine, is a different beast. It’s hard to guage the ‘size’ of it, as mileage can vary, but to me it felt a good two-and-half times as big as HoS. This also adds a new map area, the southern duchy of Touissant. A rich, vibrant land with more than a hint of the Mediterranean about it, Touissant is an area vastly different to the war-torn Velen and the beautiful but harsh Skellige.

Due to the nature of the Wild Hunt’s main storyline, Blood and Wine by necessity needs to take place before the former’s conclusion. Thematically, however, the expansion is very much a coda to Geralt’s adventures. I’d suggest, in fact, if you buy the whole game packaged complete with the DLC, that you finish the main story first before tackling this. Not because of any difficulty issues (although the enemies here are tougher than most in the main game), but simply because the story works better.

Ostensibly, the main plot-line concerns a vampiric beast stalking the duchy, murdering a seemingly unconnected group of nobles. As the story builds, though, it touches more obviously on the topics of home, family and belonging. There is a wondrous juxtaposition between the traditional Geralt, perennial outcast, and the homestead vineyard that he acquires and potentially builds up over the course of the expansion. Additionally, whilst the Witcher series has always been in some ways a dark counterpoint to more traditional high-fantasy fare, here the inversions of tropes are laid bare. Towards the end of the expansion’s main story there’s a wonderful segment where Geralt enters a fairytale world, at first glance seeming peaceful before rapidly showing its corrupted side. Seeing Geralt take part in a dark (well, darker I guess) version of Little Red Riding Hood is a complete joy.

BaW is a campaign that deals with endings, of a sort. Whilst none of us can lay claim to living the life of a Witcher, the questions the game asks regarding where we wish to settle, literally and figuratively, are ones we can all empathise with. At its conclusion you feel as if Geralt’s story is complete. Okay – there could be extra adventures put in if needed – but all the pieces of the jigsaw have been put into place.

Narrative aside, BaW astounds as well because of the sheer generosity of the content it offers. At £15.99, the expansion contains more hours of gaming than most standalone, full-price titles. There are sub-quests galore, additions to character development, new gear sets, and so on. Also, it looks absolutely amazing.

I mean, seriously, it's lovely, isn't it?
I mean, seriously, it’s lovely, isn’t it?

All of this gushing probably makes it obvious that I can’t recommend Witcher 3’s DLC sets highly enough. They take everything that was great about the main game and simultaneously condense it whilst expanding on it. The only word of warning I would give is that, given the length of the main campaign and the DLC, it might not be a good idea to attempt it all in one go, for fear of burning out. I took a break of several months between finishing the main game and approaching both DLCs, and at the end of Blood and Wine I did almost wish I’d had an extra hiatus before it. Still, it seems rather petty to complain about having too much.

The addition of Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine probably make The Witcher 3 the best computer RPG ever. I’ll admit it’s not my favourite (Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II top it), but as an achievement of narrative, technology and scope it is, quite simple, untouchable.

What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week – 13th June 2016

It’s been a week full of pre-E3 leaks, more than I can recall in recent memory. I suppose it’s hard to keep a lid on all of these things, but it does rather worry me that there won’t be anything left to announce that will surprise us in the way that we had the FFVII remake and the return of The Last Guardian last year. Ho-hum.

Anyway, what I have I been partaking of over the last week…

The Witcher 3: Heart of Stone: The release of the new Blood and Wine expansion has made me return to the world of Geralt the witcher, as well as purchase both big DLCs. I loved the base game, but got a little burned out with it towards the end. Now refreshed, I’m really like Heart of Stone. It’s substantial without straying too far from the pattern set by the main game. I’m probably about two thirds of the way through now, and finding the story very interesting. Whilst lacking the ‘epic’ scale of Ciri’s tale, this seems to be looking at the nature of evil and the question of immortality. Also, the wedding sequence is fantastic.

Skylanders Superchargers: Tesco were selling the Wii U for £15, so I bought it for my daughter. We’ve not played too much of it yet, but it seems okay. I’ve never played a Skylanders title before so wasn’t really sure what to expect. It seems more polished than Disney Infinity, if not quite up to the standards of Lego Dimensions (though that probably has something to do with the fact that it’s more obviously targeted at a younger audience). I am slightly disappointed that right from the very start there are chunks of the game that are separated off by a blindingly obvious paywall, though I guess that’s the point of these toys-to-life games.

Arrow Season Four: The emerald archer has finished his fourth TV season now and, like many others, I think this was rather a mixed bag. Whilst Neal McDonough made a great villain, his motivations were always a little cloudy and, unfortunately, the fact that his powers revolved around invisible magic did make for a few too many scenes where Stephen Amell and co were being made to stand around ‘looking trapped behind an invisible wall’. This season also seems to have suffered more than most due to its length: the plot arc dipped a fair bit throughout. Still, there have been some standout moments and it remains one of the best things on TV.

Final Fantasy XIII: Actually I haven’t being playing this, I just wanted an excuse to use the tag and annoy the idiot who left me a profanity-laden comment last week, seemingly because I didn’t proclaim that FFXIII is the greatest game ever made. It isn’t.

What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week – 3rd June 2016

In the first of what may be a regular feature but, in all likelihood, will be something I do for a couple of weeks and then mostly forget about apart from a small kernel of intellectual guilt that remains deep in my soul, here is the badly-titled post where I tell you – the people – what I – the person – have been playing/watching/reading/listening to this week.

Final Fantasy XIII: Six years after my first abandoned playthrough, spurred on by the fact that (for reasons probably best ignored) I’ve recently acquired the other two games in the trilogy, I have been attempting to make it through Square-Enix’s much-maligned last big single-player, single-numeral entry in the series. In the past I’ve been quite adamant that I didn’t like XIII, mainly due to the battle system that I just couldn’t get along with. Having started the game afresh, though, I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would. True, the combat mechanics mean that many fights can devolve into wars of attrition, but there’s a tactical element to it that I hadn’t really tuned into before.

It does, however, have possibly the worst opening of any game I’ve ever played. Certainly of any big title. There are some stunning CGI sequences, but the first few hours (hours!) of the game are just exercises in tedium. Walk down a corridor, enter a battle that is so simple it really is just a matter of selecting ‘Auto-Battle’ four times in a row, walk down another corridor, watch a cutscene, rinse, repeat. The mechanics of the game are introduced so slowly but not really explained in great detail unless you read the in-game codex. Just get on with it! Thankfully, now some 30+ hours in, I’ve got to the world of Gran Pulse and can actually walk around a bit and do sub-questy type things. Hurrah! This really is a game that rewards invested time, because it does get a lot better both in terms of gameplay and storyline, I just wish it didn’t take so damned long.

Also, Vanille is incredibly annoying.

The Witcher 3: Well, technically what I’ve done this week is bought and downloaded the Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine DLC and spent hours re-installing the game on my PS4. I played it for a few minutes, picking up where I left off with my post-end-game save, though seem to have stumbled immediately upon an XP bug where my character seems stuck at 2000/2000 points on level 35. There’s a few things the Internet suggests to try that I might have a go at, but haven’t got around to it yet. Looking forward to spending some more time in Geralt’s world, though.

The Flash season two: There’s a current void in my life that will remain unfilled until The Flash comes back later this year. I think I’ll do a separate post on the whole season at some point, but suffice to say this has been a great season. Perhaps not quite as good as the first, it’s still managed to be consistently entertaining for twenty-three episodes. And that ending. Holy-shit-pants.

What makes the show so great is the cast. Grant Gustin is fantastic as the eponymous hero, and it seems such a shame that the DC movies won’t feature him. Also Tom Cavanagh has rapidly become one of my favourite actors. More of him, please.

On… Uncharted 4

Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End contained below.

Blimey, this is a lovely game. Lovely to play, lovely to look at, lovely to hear. Just lovely. At times its loveliness is so pronounced that it makes you want to reach out and stroke your TV screen. Don’t do that, though, as you’ll get fingerprints all over it and immediately feel embarrassed.

Uncharted 4 is one of those games that, if you dissemble it to its constituent parts, doesn’t seem to add up to very much, yet somehow the finished product is spectacular. On paper it should be rather like The Order 1886: a linear, story-based romp interspersed with shooty bits. And, yes, it is that (plus some jumpy bits and car-drivey bits), but whereas The Order felt dead and leaden, this feels full of life. Maybe it’s the stunning graphics. The vistas of Scotland and Madagascar in particular are the most astonishing I’ve seen since The Witcher 3. Maybe it’s the characters. If wise-cracking Nathan Drake urked you before then, well, he won’t endear himself to you this time. But if, like me, you enjoyed the breezy, almost effortless charm of the main cast then you’ll certainly get your fair share of entertainment here. Maybe it’s the gunplay. True, it’s not best-in-class but is easy to pick up and, most importantly, fun. Most of the weapons have a satisfying heft to them, and there’s enough variety so that you feel you’re constantly finding new items throughout the length of the game.

Most likely, it’s everything together that makes this game what it is.

Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.
Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.

What’s most pleasing is that, considering this is the fourth game in the series (well, fifth if you count Vita prequel Golden Abyss), this is actually the one that differs most from the pre-set formula. There’s an increased focus on stealth which, wonderfully, never descends to the level of insta-death fails (I’m looking at you again, The Order). The pacing also seems better, with more sensible gaps between the all-out shooting sections. And whilst you never feel that you’re free to explore the world, there are multiple sections where you have more scope for moving off the beaten path. I found particularly impressive the way that the game signposts and funnels you down particular routes without ever really making you feel as if you being forced to go in a specific direction. There are no mini-maps, waypoints or HUD routes here, yet you never feel lost.

Special mention should be made of the game’s story, and if you’re really worried about spoilers you should step away now. Superficially, Uncharted 4 centres around a hunt for the lost treasure of long-dead if not long-Johned pirate Captain Avery. In actuality, the story is more concerned with the question of obsession and the notion of what we do after the adventure of youth is over. The game ends with the idea that, as life moves on, you shouldn’t give up on your dreams entirely, but perhaps you do need to adjust them and consider them in light of what else you’ve gained. The introduction of Nathan Drake’s brother Sam, whilst admittedly feeling slightly shoe-horned into the series’ continuity, provides an interesting juxtaposition. Despite Sam being the elder brother, his time spent languishing in a Spanish jail means that he essentially plays the role of Nathan in the early games: driven to find the treasure more than anything else.

It’s unusual for game series to end in a ‘planned’ way: normally they go on either forever or until the sales figures drop too much. Uncharted 4 is very much a ‘goodbye’ to the series or, at the very least, to the series as we know it. There could be more Uncharteds after this, but I think it’s fair to say – some DLC aside – Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting days are over. That’s nothing to be sad about, though. The series definitely ends on a high and, as the game tells you, you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn't like that.
Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn’t like that.

Of course, an Uncharted game wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without some amazing set-pieces. Whilst there’s nothing here that quite matches the train sequence in Uncharted 2,  you’d have to be a cynical cove indeed not to be caught up in the thrills presented by the Madagascan car chase or the escape from the Scottish church. It helps that everything is presented in such a stunning way, with very few performance problems (I think I noticed maybe three or four slight frame drops throughout my time with the game). Naughty Dog have a reputation for squeezing wonders out of PlayStation hardware, and they haven’t disappointed here.

If any criticism can be levelled at U4 it’s that it is still a linear adventure at heart. This didn’t concern me – I’ve spent too much time in aimless open worlds – but if you’re coming to the game expecting something akin to an RPG then you’re not going to be happy. There are the normal Uncharted hidden treasures to uncover, though they don’t do an awful lot aside from unlock some special game modes and other ‘goodies’ in the option menu. The Vita title Golden Abyss had some interesting codex entries fleshing out the treasures, and I was a bit disappointed to find those missing here. I’m also not sure how much replay value there is here, particularly if you don’t touch the multiplayer (which I didn’t).

All of this is criticism for the sake of it, though. Uncharted 4 is one of the best games I’ve played this generation.

On… Treasure Island Dizzy

Some twenty-six years ago I went to the local newsagents and picked up a game that would change my life. That newsagents was down the road, and that game was Treasure Island Dizzy.

Treasure_Island_Dizzy_1

If you had anything to do with UK 8-bit home computer scene you will be aware of Dizzy: he was an anthropomorphic egg with an penchant for somersaults and puzzle-solving. Treasure Island was the second game in the series, released to an unsuspecting world in 1989. It’s hard to overemphasise how obsessed with Dizzy I became: something about the games, their cartoon-esque environments and characters spoke to me in a way that few other games at the time did. And it all started for me back with Treasure Island.

Looking back at the game now, it’s hard to understand quite why it struck such a chord. Some things – the Pyramids, the music of Mozart, Ghostbusters – have survived the test of time and remain as wondrous now as they were at their point of creation. Treasure Island Dizzy is not one of those things. Hailing from a time when the rules of game design were still struggling to creep forth from the primeval sludge of an 8-bit assembler, TID is full of things that just wouldn’t make it past a focus group today.

Take the end-game. After spending hours working your way through puzzles that vary from the obvious to the obscure, you get to the game’s last screen only to be told that to pass the final obstacle you need to collect thirty golden coins. The likelihood is that, by this point, you will have collected some but not all of these, mainly because a large number of them are hidden behind objects in the game world that look exactly the same as everything else. Without a guide to assist, the only way you’d ever find them all is by attempting to pick up every single bit of screen estate in the game. I’m struggling to think of any decent reason, save artificially extending the length of the game, why this was put in.

Couple that with the game’s single-life system (something which turns out to have been the result of a late-game bug that couldn’t be resolved in time for release) and you’ve got one of those recipes for frustration that old games often exhibited.

Having said that, there are some stand-out moments that stick in the mind. Finding the snorkel and realising that there’s a whole other island to explore is pretty cool, as is the underwater exploration.

The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.
The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.

I played the Commodore 64 version, which was ported by Ian Gray, and in similar style to a lot of budget releases from Codemasters it was a pretty poor conversion. I’m assuming it was a port of the Spectrum version (though it may have been the CPC), and aside from getting rid of some colour-clash and added some admittedly good music there isn’t much that takes advantage of the Commodore’s better graphics. To be fair, though, there is a charm to the art style. It’s not quite the ‘cartoon adventure’ that the marketing promised, but it’s pretty close given the restrictions of the hardware.

Playing the game today makes me sad, in the way that looking back at my wedding photos does. I want the game to make me happy, to make me remember the days when life was simpler. But it doesn’t. With the passing years has come too much recognition of how games should work and play, and Treasure Island Dizzy just hasn’t got enough of them. The insta-deaths, single life, frustration of the end-game, obscure puzzles, whilst all admittedly standards of the time just don’t hold up any more. *Sigh*.

Treasure Island Dizzy: it seemed a great game a quarter of a century ago, but just isn’t any more. And that makes me want to cry.

On… Captain America: Civil War

Potential spoilers for Captain America: Civil War follow.

Watching Captain America: Civil War makes you realise all the things that were wrong with Batman vs. Superman. Where the DC film was dark, overly serious and demanded some leaps of logic that stretched your already strained credibility, the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bright, colourful and (if you can excuse all the superpowers) actually makes sense for the most part.

The film has the benefit of being sufficiently late in the series that most members of the audience will have an investment in the characters and an understanding of their motivations. Whilst there’s still enjoyment to be had if you’ve never seen a Marvel movie before, it’s a lot easier, say, to understand Tony Stark’s decisions and actions here if you’ve seen the two Avengers films.

Despite the presence of Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow and a number of other characters, this is very much a Captain America film, with the story revolving around Steve Rogers and his relationship with Bucky Barnes, the titular ‘Winter Soldier’ of the previous series entry. More could have been made of this, and it’s not really until a monologue at the end of the film that I really understood the reason why this friendship meant so much to Rogers. The Winter Solider takes up a lot of screen-time, but there’s relatively little advancement of his character other than some pretty sharp changes in attitude, making there appear something of a disconnect between his actions and the way others are reacting to him.

But never mind all of that. The main draw of the film is watching one bunch of superheroes fighting a bunch of other superheroes, and it does this pretty damned well. The ‘big’ fight scene takes place roughly halfway through the film, and is fantastically well choreographed. Whilst the limitations of movie budgets and audience knowledge mean that we could never have the all-out war depicted in the comics, this is still a visual treat. The fact that it manages to look so impressive without the CGI being overly obvious is a credit to the filmmakers. There’s another fight sequence towards the end of the film between Iron Man, Captain America and the Winter Soldier which, whilst not as grand in scale as what comes before it, is much more visceral and savage.

What I found made the conflict in the film interesting was that there was never a sense of being told or led in the direction of one side being ‘right’. True, the film’s focus on Cap means that his viewpoint is expressed more, but you always understand the opposing side. Perhaps at the end Tony Stark’s anger – understandable but perhaps misplaced – is shown as being a little hollow, something the film juxtaposes with Blank Panther’s character arc. There’s a distinctly human element to all of the heroes (even those who actually aren’t) that makes the film enjoyable on a level deeper than the normal superhero ‘action’ basis.

All in all, Civil War is probably the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, and sets up an interesting basis for the next ‘phase’ of the series. If you’ve not seen it, go and watch it. Now. Go on.

On… Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper DLC

WARNING: Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and the Jack the Ripper DLC below!

Ever wanted to play as a deranged serial killer who enjoys disembowelling and mutilating prostitutes? If you answered ‘yes’ then, firstly, it may be worth talking to a therapist and, secondly, the Jack the Ripper DLC for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might just be the expansion you’ve been waiting for.

Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!
Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!

Taking place around twenty years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper sees the series’ best assassin since Ezio, Evie Frye, investigating the disappearance of her brother which is intertwined with the killing spree of the infamous Victorian serial killer. This being an Assassin’s Creed game, obviously this is all mingled in with the story of the Brotherhood of Assassins. Thankfully it doesn’t transpire that Jack is a Templar, but rather an Assassin who has gone a bit fruitloop. As ever, some liberties with the historical setting are taken, and in this ‘reality’ Jack has pretty much taken over the entirety of London’s underworld. He also wears a sack over his head for the whole campaign. It’s never made clear why. It’s not even a very nice sack.

The story takes place in the boroughs of Whitechapel and the City of London, with the rest of the environment from the main campaign blocked off. There are a couple of new settings, a snow-draped mansion and some prison hulks, the latter of which is a very interesting and well-designed locale. In terms of gameplay, there are around seven or so main missions plus a number of ‘associate activities’. Some of them, such as the Cargo Hijack, are pretty much identical to those in the base game, but others – such as Slow Carriage Escapes and the Ripper Letters – offer a bit of a spin on the standard themes. Unfortunately a few too many of them are reliant on the utterly awful ‘kidnapping’ mechanic that Syndicate introduced, making them frustrating and less than fun.

Crap like this still happens.
Crap like this still happens.

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot here that you can’t get from the main game. There is a new ‘fear’ mechanic whereby certain new weapons and QTE-based ‘brutal takedowns’ allow you to scare some enemies, which is useful for large-scale crowd control. It’s not great, though, and I couldn’t help feeling that it would have been better if they had implemented more items or moves that you could use at a distance. You never feel in control in the same way as you do, say, in the predator encounters in the Batman Arkham games. All too often an attempt to use a fear mechanic devolves into a simple scrap with enemies that are by now so underpowered compared to your character that they don’t put up much of a challenge even in large numbers. It also all feels a little… bolted on.

Towards the end-game of AC: Syndicate I felt that I was consistently battling against or exploiting the mechanics of the game, and Jack the Ripper just carries on that. The AI remains laughably dumb at times: you can murder a guard, the body of whom is stumbled upon by their colleagues who go into ‘alert mode’ for a bit. But then, when it’s over, they just go back to their pre-defined patterns, leaving their former friend’s corpse to rot on the floor. Whilst I appreciate that some of this is done for game-play purposes, having played Metal Gear Solid V with its much more ’emergent’ AI, this all seems a bit of a retrograde step.

Also, please, Ubisoft, please: whatever you do next for Assassin’s Creed, make sure you get rid of the ridiculous ‘you must be anonymous to continue’ stipulation that applies to so many of the mission objectives. Just because a guard spotted me five minutes ago does it really mean that I can’t now open this particular door merely because a cut-scene lies behind it?

Gameplay issues aside, what really urked me about Jack the Ripper is its subject matter and the way it deals with it. There are a couple of instances where the game mentions the brutality of the crimes committed, but for the most part we get the sensationalistic claptrap that typifies the lower-grade approaches to this segment of history. What makes it worse is that there are three portions of the DLC where you play as the Ripper. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea to the people who were writing the feature bullet-points, but let’s be clear about this: you play as a psychopath who – by the game’s own admission – gets his kicks by brutalising women in the most inhumane of manners. This wouldn’t matter quite so much if the Ripper playable segments dealt with this in a meaningful way, but the truth is that they’re just the same as the normal game except that mission objectives are displayed in a ‘crazy’ font with a weird screen-effect to accompany team. Honestly, it’s all a little distasteful and adds next to nothing to the game.

In its favour, the DLC is sizable and worth the money if you’re not too burnt out by the main Syndicate campaign. For me, though, it was just too much of the same, with the extra bits not really being substantial or well-implemented enough to make it worth the while.

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