Pre-Sequel, phantoms and prehistory

So I’ve been playing through a couple of games of late, and haven’t written anything about ’em. Time to rectify that. Strap in if you’re delighted by the second-hand thoughts of my gaming exploits. It’s fun, I assure you.

(It probably isn’t, but bear with me.)

I’ve played a couple of games since I’ve been back from Japan: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, the remastered versions of Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3, and the surprisingly fun grunt-a-thon of Far Cry Primal. A mixed bag of experiences, but all worth a look… more or less.

You probably know by now that Borderlands 3 is on the way.

Looks pretty good, right? And looks kind of the same as the previous Borderlands games. (Which isn’t a bad thing.

It seems it was enough to get me to crack open my PS4 copy of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel in a bit of a quest for some kill-loot-upgrade-repeat stimulus.

I originally played Borderlands 2 on my PC during a very bad time of my life. My attention span was shot to shit, and I couldn’t concentrate on huge narratives, so the game’s key mechanic – do some missions, kill some dudes, loot their weapons and ensure you’re carrying the best you can – fit really well with my frame of mind. The story was colourful and kind of cheesy, and there seemed to be a lot of effort put into the creation of the world.

And of course, horrible flying brain-tentacle monsters. Fuck those guys. 

I ended up sinking about 100 hours into the game, which was the most I’d played something in years, and was a pretty good record until Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Origins came along. It was something I’ve thought of fondly, which is weird as I’d previously not been all that interested in the series. So, interest piqued by the upcoming sequel, I decided that Borderlands: The Not-Quite-Big-Enough-For-A-Sequel-But-Too-Big-For-DLC was the go.

Look, it does the same thing pretty well. It expands the places we’re able to visit in the Borderlands universe, and ensures that there’s enough new features (hello, you can choke to death now: it’s a feature, not a bug!) and kinda-different guns to keep die-hards interested. But that’s not really why I liked it. I liked the fact that the game is really Borderlands: Australia On The Moon. Which is, I suspect, why a lot of the reviews were lukewarm: people didn’t really get why having a shotgun that would tell you to get fuckin’ fucked was a good thing.

I guess this is what happens when you let Canberrans develop games. Still, I appreciated it: it was ludicrous and homely enough, and fit in well with the ragtag crew in the game.

Aside from that, though? Well, it’s not really BL2, is it? I mean, I really enjoyed seeing more of how Handsome Jack came to be, and I did enjoy the DLC journey through Claptrap’s brain – at least until the weirdly overpowered final boss turned up – but I wasn’t hugely enthralled as I’d been with other games in the series. I didn’t spend anywhere near the same amount of time in the game – not a surprise, considering its length – but I did feel like I was grinding a lot more here than previously.

A lot of grinding in craters.

I’ll be interested to see how BL3 addresses some of these concerns. I also wonder if some of my problems would be ameliorated by playing as a different character – but my backlog is probably a little too full to allow another run through any time soon.

So after complaining about re-runs, I naturally decided that it was time I gave the second and third Silent Hill games a whirl. I played their HD reissues on Xbox. I’d heard the versions in this release were pretty terrible – I made sure to play with the original voice acting rather than the rerecordings – but I have to say that I wasn’t as harsh a critic on the collection as some. They seemed fine to me, even though it took a while to become used to the more stilted controls these games favour.

Hell, the games are old anyway – 2001 and 2003 – and I haven’t played them since release. I’m sure they didn’t quite have the same effect they did when I played them in my Leichhardt flat, alone at night on my PS2, but I didn’t think the versions I played in Canterbury (again, alone at night) suffered too much in translation. Shit’s still weird as fuck, after all.

And let’s admit it: the gameplay of Silent Hill games is not really the thing you play them for. They’re janky. They’re difficult. They don’t make a whole lot of sense, and they are fairly unforgiving if you screw things up. They’re filled with problems – fuck, the fogginess of the titular setting was the result of the limitations of the hardware it was designed for.

Hello, RAM problems!

The reason the games have such a pull is that they have an atmosphere unlike any other. An atmosphere that shouldn’t work but does: an amalgam of Twin Peaks, David Cronenberg, the fires under Centralia and the shapeless pain of human loss.

(Don’t forget Kindergarten Cop, of course.)

And that atmosphere – bloody and gritty and lost – is still there, in spades. It evokes something that not many games successfully do: a fear, a suspicion, a wariness. Feelings that normally come attached to something like Lost Highway, or Angel Heart: a filmic dive into the darker parts of life. It’s a game, sure, a survival horror and a puzzler – but it feels as if it’s grasping for something more than just pressing buttons to proceed the story.

Given that this is Harry Mason, the bars are understandable. 

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed these games, all those years ago. I’d known that I’d wanted to revisit them – they cracked my head open when I first played them, particularly Silent Hill 2 – but didn’t realise how much I’d missed them. The limitations of the game – the strictures of the story and the purposeful way the player is hamstrung to keep them away from non-story parts of the world – were refreshing, and allowed me to soak up the tales told.

This fuckin’ guy.

I don’t particularly want to get too deep on the narrative of the games, as that’s the sort of thing that is better experienced firsthand. Broadly, they’re about grief (2) and destiny (3). But there’s more than that. The games, like the best uncanny literature, tweak something deeper down, something primal. There’s proper nightmare fuel contained in here – the sort of imagery that makes all too horrible sense in the sleeping hours. I’d underestimated how much I want games to, like the first season of True Detective, give me those fucked-up tingles that telegraph that something’s dreadfully fucking wrong.

All I can suggest is that you play the games, and forgive them their clanky design. The difficulty is worth persevering with, because there’s not many games that make you look over your shoulder while you play, or that make you want to wash your hands when you’re finished. Something about Silent Hill games clings to you when you’re done, and like perfume threaded through a long-forgotten coat, I’m surprised that my nose still wrinkles pleasingly when I come into its orbit.

Jesus, you’ve aged. Also, I seem to be stuck in this hellworld. 

I’ve got a bunch of other Silent Hill games I’d like to play, but I’m taking a bit of a break from them, as I feel they’re better savoured rather than shotgunned. I also have noticed that there’s an enhanced toolkit for the PC edition of SH2: I suspect I’ll give that a whirl at some point as well. I’m hoping that the rumour of Xbox-style backwards compatibility on the PS5 is true – that way I could experience games I already own, but on the same platform. There’s something pleasing to me about the ability to line them all up, from the first to the last, and hit them in sequence. And hell, if it means I might be able to play each Fatal Frame game, too, then there’s even more reason for merriment.

Needing to get back to some FPS stupidity following my descent into the horrors of the human heart, I figured that a Far Cry instalment would be the way to go. And being a stickler for playing the things in order, more or less, it was time for Far Cry Primal, the series entry that sees the player take control of Takaar, a warrior in 10,000 BCE, as he tries to find a home and defeat foes.

I’m a bit of a fan of the Far Cry series – check here for previous write-ups of the third and fourth games – and it didn’t take long for it to feel pretty familiar. The main thrust of the game, despite the setting, is that you’re A Dude Who Needs To Level Up His Game To Beat Baddies. And as that, it is pretty well pitched – as well as you’d expect for a big series like this.

(Though I will admit that there’s certain times when the ubiquity of Ubisoft’s open-world designs and fetch-quest iconography made me wonder whether I was playing Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed. But then, there’s not as much blood drinking in AC.)

Unadulterated blood, I assure you!

The thing that appeals most about Far Cry Primal is that it takes the structure of the series and plays with it, in much the same way Far Cry Blood Dragon did. It’s a game where it appears obvious that the devs were able to check out some different ideas and see what stuck. There’s no communication without subtitles in this thing: you speak a fictional (though rooted in reality, sorta) language. The drug scenes – a feature of the series – are vision quests. And the endless animal skinning seems to make a lot more sense when you’re actually someone who eats pachyderm for dinner.

Unsurprisingly, weaponry is a lot simpler – you have bows, spears, bashing sticks and slightly bigger bashing sticks. But it seems the first acknowledgement of a certain trend find in Far Cry playthroughs: there’ll be one or two weapons you rely on and they’ll see you through the whole thing.

There’s nothing more satisfying than BEEEEEEEEEEEES though. 

That worked pretty well here. (I’m a club and arrows man, meself.)

So it’s a pretty good game, functionally speaking, given that it does what the others in the range do without fucking it up too much. But in terms of narrative? Ehhh.

In the end, it was the story that doesn’t do enough heavy lifting. I played through all the available narrative missions – you beat various baddies, culminating in an arena battle more structured (and annoying) than the others in the game – but then everything kind of flops. There’s no real Big Bad, because the game works on the idea of tribal battles – and none of the leaders are of the scenery-chewing villainy levels of previous games.

Traffic james were worse back then, I guess. 

It’s weird, because so much of the series is built on such a personal beef. Here, though, you’re the avatar of the will of others, mainly – it feels less involving, which is strange.

Another weird decision was the introduction of a level cap. Each mission earned XP, scored according to a bonus percentage (based on how many other Wenja had joined your village) but there’s a hard limit – even if you’d not scored enough upgrade points to finish the upgrade paths available. In contrast to my usual slavish desire to acquire all skills in a game like this, I decided I couldn’t be fucked killing more animals in order to receive a buff or two, and left it.

HOWEVER, there’s something in the game that compensates for the shitty narrative and the endless amount of grinding you endure. It’s the fact that here, you can tame animals, and they become your furry sidekicks.

AND YOU CAN PAT THEM. 

I didn’t know how much I wanted to pat wolves and sabre-toothed tigers until the option was presented, and the answer is a lot.

The beasts you can befriend were my favourite part of the game, and they actually drew me in much further than a lot of the human characters did. I dunno, call me crazy but riding around on a bear shooting fire arrows at randoms strikes me as an excellent start for a buddy-cop movie.

Wouldn’t watch a movie with this fish in it, though. He’s an arsehole. 

So yeah, the game had flaws, but fuck, you can make wildlife do your bidding, and that’s a big tick in my book. I’d gone in expecting the game to be a bit of a drag – largely because I enjoyed the fourth instalment so much – and was pleasantly surprised to find such a personal connection to an AI-controlled buddy. (No matter how much they got in my way.)

That’s probably enough on games for the moment. I’m currently balancing choosing my next game with the guilt entailed by my Pile of Shame, so it’s undecided as yet. But I know that soon enough, some other digital treat will come calling.

Until then, then.

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