Bang bang: a gaming update

It’s been a while since I wrote something about what I’ve been playing. I know, world with bated breath and all that. I ploughed through a bunch of games in a row until the actual half-arsed reviewing I do had added up to a sizeable amount, and not doing it seemed to encourage more stress than actually sitting down and giving it a go.

Hard at work. Also, bein’ green.

So here, however belated, is my Examination Of What I’ve Been Playing Lately. I would’ve had it done earlier, but the cat ate my homework.  

After spending a bunch of time with Yakuza Kiwami, I guess I felt I needed a break from that open-world format. So what better way to shake that off than to play something completely scripted and kind of one-dimensional?

HELLO, CALL OF DUTY!

Thanks, thanks, I’m here all week. Try the veal.

So yeah. COD. The series that’s continually lambasted for being one of The Worst Things. It’s something I have a little form with – I played the first couple of games years ago and enjoyed them because they seemed suitably cinematic (albeit blockheaded) and used some excellent voice talent. I’d stopped playing around the Black Ops period, and had always meant to give them another go. So why not now? After all, a bunch of the games were making an appearance on Xbox’s backwards compatibility program, so I figured it’d be easier than trying to give everything a go on older consoles.

Naturally, I played seven of them in a row. Yes, including one that gave me wicked motion sickness – a first!

This was, as you can imagine, a bit of a confusing enterprise, particularly given that the games I played marked the point where the series went from purporting to be an accurate portrayal of historical exercises to hey let’s just give fuckers jetpacks and let them run along walls and have inbuilt radar because fuck it why not. So, I guess I was unsurprised by the lack of a coherent narrative.

Standard military procedure.

I burned through:

  • Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops II
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops III
  • Call of Duty: Ghosts
  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
  • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
  • Call of Duty: WWII

Overall, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the games while I was playing them. There’s a real sense of vision in terms of the presentation of the games, even if the narrative or the gameplay tends to lapse into second-verse-same-as-the-first routine.

Of them all, I think the first and the last games on the list were the standouts. I loved the Cold War settings of COD: Black Ops and was supremely bummed when it didn’t make a reappearance, being exchanged for future-tech gunbro stuff instead. It’s a shame, because there was much more a sense of intrigue in the murky almost-truth the game pushes. Likewise, COD: WWII felt – for me – a great return to the game’s roots, right down to the terrors of the Normandy landing. Was it mawkish, particularly in the handling of death camps and their aftermath? Sure, but this is a big-budget game. It’s Schindler’s List, not Shoah, and to expect much subtlety is to be disappointed.

Shit’s fucked up in that direction in particular.

The games that went into future-tech were relatively fun to play – and not as bad as reviews had painted them – but also more disposable, somehow. I didn’t connect with many of the main characters in the games – other than a reasonable interest in the protagonists of COD: Ghosts – because character development seemed a bit tacked on. There’s a lot more interest in ratcheting up the tension, of increasing the stakes you’re playing for than there is in personality.

(PS: It was distinctly weird seeing Kevin Spacey as an industrialist in COD: Advanced Warfare, particularly given that his since-uncovered creepiness coloured his character waaaay before the narrative unveiled its AHA HE’S REALLY A BAD GUY! heel turn.)

What you do get with each game is about six hours of whiz-bang, exploding buildings and slow-mo takedowns of villainous dickheads that is like eating a whole box of popcorn: enjoyable at the time, and either forgettable (or regrettable) afterwards.

Importantly, I’m not a multiplayer gamer. I used to play quite a bit of Quake 3 Arena and Counter-Strike (and the excellently frustrating GoldenEye: Source) but the campers, the lag, and the ceaseless torrent of juvenile fuckwittery over voice chat saw me give the gig away.

RELOAD FASTER GODDAMNIT.

(There’s also the other problem: playing occasionally highlights how terrible you are in comparison to people who’re on every day: I don’t have the inclination to improve to a level where it’d be, yanno, fun.)

But yeah, I don’t play multiplayer modes, generally speaking. And so I haven’t played them on any of these COD titles either. I know that this means I’m missing a large part of the content – I played some of the zombie add-ons before feeling that maybe I’d be better off playing Left4Dead again – but I can’t bring myself to care. Multiplayer arenas aren’t something that attract me, because I crave narrative rather than different weapons loadouts. This could be a failing, sure, but I’m fine with it – my backlog is enormous enough without adding git gud at wartime bang-bang to it.

I guess I just find it difficult to write much about COD entries. This is something I discovered when I played the three COD: MW games in a row: I skipped writing about them in favour of talking about a zombie-killing cheerleader with a severed head for a boyfriend. I enjoy them while I’m playing them – certainly, only the Uncharted series manages to shoehorn in so many cinematic set-pieces as COD – but they vanish from my mind as soon as I’ve finished. I’ve replayed the first couple, sure, but I don’t know that I’d be bothered with replaying any of the titles on this list.

Ah, that’s the reality of war I’d been looking for.

Same as it ever was, I guess.

Thankfully, the next game I played wasn’t as eminently forgettable as the preceding seven: Red Dead Redemption.

I’d been wanting to play this game for ages, but hadn’t – not at length, at least. I’d had a stab once, on my PS3, but the horse-riding mechanic (and load times) kind of bummed me out, so I had given it up. More fool me, as it turns out.

This game was everything I didn’t know I was looking for. I had, back in the PS2 era, played Red Dead Revolver, this game’s predecessor, and I remember thinking it was great, albeit a game with nearly unwinnable showdowns. All of the jankiness in that game was gone this time around – RDR proved to be the western game that I’d wanted all along, and I’m not even a great fan of westerns.

(Yes, I’ve played Call of Juarez and its immediate sequel, and this ran both those games out of town on a rail.)

The story of the game is pretty simple: it’s 1911 – so at the arse-end of US frontier times – and you’re John Marston, a no-bullshit dude who’s in thrall to some G-men. They’ve taken Marston’s wife and son hostage to force the one-time outlaw to act as a hired gun and deal with some of his former colleagues.

How you do it? Well, that’s up to you. Being a Rockstar game and a western, the canvas is broad. The game stretches down into Mexico – unavailable initially, but eventually unlocked as the story progresses – and features about every yee-haw trope you can imagine. You can break horses, bring scoundrels back to the law, play nightwatchman, hunt and trade, or just stick to the story missions and see your bloody revenge through. It really doesn’t matter which order you do these things, because what’s most important is that the game successfully makes you believe it’s taking place in the real world. Marston will talk to himself or his horse, and can easily be undone by pissed-off wildlife or cliff edges. The feeling of sweaty grit is all encompassing, and when the Morricone-aping soundtrack ramps up? Well, it’s fucking glorious.

Why yes I am a badass motherfucker, thanks for asking.

I kept reminding myself throughout that I was playing a last-gen game, upscaled for my Xbox. It still looks remarkable, and the sequel should be something else.

(It’s no wonder I came up with this after playing dozens of hours of the game.)

Everything about the game just works. Calling your horse; moseying along the rim of canyons as the sun beats down; using a combination of stealth and all-in gunplay to take control of outposts – everything feels considered and natural. There’s a weight to the decisions you make in the game: who you help and who you send to hell. You’re left with no doubt that there’ll be a cost to Marston’s actions through his whole life, that accounts must be reckoned – and when this is set against the life he’s trying to carve out with his wife and son? Well, damn, there’s that involvement COD was missing.

The game’s expansion, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, is more of the same, only with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Zombies and hell-horses and such have taken over the land, and only Marston can help return things to some semblance of normality. (Well, maybe.)

This isn’t what it looks like. (It is.)

Look, I’m pretty much over zombie games as a whole, but this? This was my jam, and a perfect way to release the pressure created by the main story. (Also, that violently antisemitic shopkeeper from the main game gets dismembered by undead customers, so the arse-kicking I’d spent 100 hours of main playtime hoping for was well received.)

Both the main game and its expansion were brilliant. RDR is absolutely one of the best experiences I’ve had in games, and I can’t wait to get on to the sequel. Hell, writing about it now makes me want to saddle up and listen for that mournful guitar.

On a mournful note, the next thing I powered through was the short-but-sweet Layers of Fear, a game I’d had on PC for a while but finally got around to playing on console.

The game (and its follow-up DLC, Layers of Fear: Inheritance) fits into the walking simulator genre pretty much. Much like the others I’ve played, the game’s story unfolds through exploration and limited interaction – taking place in a creepy house on a rainy evening, in this case.

The story is simple: you’re an artist who’s returned to his studio to complete his masterpiece. Fair enough, grab some paints and get to it, right?

Huh, we share a timetable.

Nah.

The real story is that there’s some deeply fucked-up shit going on in our painter’s life. The house is in increasingly hallucinogenic disrepair: tubes of paint populate random drawers. Bottles are strewn on the floors. And the past refuses to stay gone. While the house appears normal initially, as the game progresses, it’s clear that there’s some horrific morphing House of Leaves stuff going on, fuelled by guilt, booze and the weight of the painter’s previous actions.

Nothing that’s going on feels good, and you know things will end badly. Whether it’s deserved or not? Well, that’s for the player to discover through their explorations.

That well-known artwork PORTRAIT OF NOPE.

The game isn’t particularly long – I was able to play it during an extended session one evening – but it does have a particularly creepy feeling that not many other games have managed. Yes, it’s broken to some degree – there’s some absolutely unforgivable and completely counter-intuitive platforming sections – but the method in which the game delivers its scares is exemplary. Sure, there’s the occasional jump-scare, but for the most part this is a corner-of-the-eye freak-out, which is something I didn’t realise I’d been missing.

The DLC sequel adds a daughter’s story to the mix. Returning to the house many years after leaving it, she attempts to make peace with the strange trauma of her childhood. It’s more of the same with a slightly different lick of paint, but it deepens the story and allows some redemption for characters who previously, I’d thought, not received any. There’s multiple endings for this (and the main game) and I’d probably give it another play through to see what else might happen were other choices made.

For the price – Layers of Fear is fairly inexpensive – I was impressed. There’s a distinct Silent Hill feeling to some of the hallway-creeping that I appreciated immensely.

Now, the home stretch.

Dishonored is another game I’d meant to play for a long time. It’s also another I’d had on different platforms before finally playing on a current-gen console. The Definitive Edition of the game tarted up its graphics and gathered together all the DLC in one place and was cheap so I figured it was finally time.

In the game, you play Corvo Attano, a former protector of royalty who’s framed for regicide. Thrown into prison, you must escape to the plague rat-infested shithole of Dunwall, in order to clear your name and rescue a princess.

(Also, the voice talent in this thing is bonkers. Brad Dourif is your quartermaster. Michael Madsen is an assassin. CARRIE FISHER PLAYS THE ROLE OF A FUCKING LOUDSPEAKER.)

The whole thing feels like BioShock in that there’s a bunch of ways you can go about solving problems. If you want to neck-stab your way through areas crawling with armed guards, you absolutely can. But you can also choose a more discreet path through the world – one using powers and subterfuge. Or hell, you could just rewire the opposition’s technology and make it zap them into woofle-dust instead of you. How you proceed is open, and that’s a large part of the game’s appeal – whatever you do feels like it’s your story.

Pictured: woofle-dust.

That’s something I like in a game, especially one that’s sold as a stealth game. I’m historically not very good at these sort of games, so allowing an option other than BAM YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD when you’re spotted is a relief. It’s a credit to the game’s design that the transition from sneaking to all-in brawling feels natural.

Another aspect of the game I liked was its design. Mechnically, it feels a lot like Half-Life 2: there’s a touch of the Overwatch in the officialdom of Dunwall. But the art style is more pronounced – everything is portrayed in a more painterly than photorealistic way, and it’s intriguing. I spent a lot of time poking about, wanting to see things from a different angle because frankly, it’s all vaguely gorgeous.

There need to be more rat armies in games.

While I didn’t spend much time with the game’s trial-based DLC, the narrative DLC for the game is great. The Knife of Dunwall sees you take the role of the killer-of-royalty seen in the game’s opening moments, while The Brigmore Witches continues the killer’s path into a web of conspiracy and deception. I don’t really want to discuss the story because it’d spoil the main game, but suffice it to say that parts of the main story are explained in greater depth. It rounds out the Dunwall experience, and I was pleased – it’s not often that DLC adds anything of substance to a main narrative. And hell, it’s always fun to play as a bad guy, right?

There’s a couple of sequels to Dishonored floating about, and I’m keen to play them – though not yet. I was interested in the world, and certainly would like to see whether the following games break free from the rigid zone format of the first into more open-world territory. But I will be back, for sure.

OK, so maybe I lied when I said I’m not a multiplayer gamer. Another game I’ve been playing on and off of late – largely because it was something I scored thanks to my PS Plus membership – is Dead by Daylight.

The game, pretty simply, is an asymmetric multiplayer game that pits a killer against four plucky teens. You can choose to play either side, though – perhaps tellingly – I tend to play as a killer whenever I’m online. There’s a couple of paid-for official skins (with appropriate maps) – a Saw pig, The Shape from Halloween and so on – but I’ve been sticking to the game’s initial cadre of creepers because they seem suitably grim.

The game is a mixture of sneaking about and running like hell. It’s not particularly brilliant, but it captures the lumbering evil of the slasher movie pretty well, and hell, there’s something to be said for grabbing obnoxious teens and putting them on a hook to chill.

This could be the first boob-free version of the slasher flick, you know.

Ahem.

And that’s where we’re up to. I’m not sure what I’m going to play next: either a re-run of the PS4 version of the Tomb Raider reboot and its sequels (the most recent of which landed not so long ago) or perhaps the set-in-Egypt Assassin’s Creed game I haven’t played yet. Or maybe some No Man’s Sky (post-update) or Far Cry 5? I’m not likely to dive back into the Dishonored world without a bit of a break, but I could be tempted there, too.

Whichever I choose, I’m sure it’ll turn up for dodgy dissection in here – sooner or later.

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