Sneeze, hack, splutter, headshot

I’ve been ill and housebound for two days. As per usual this has meant I’ve been playing quite a few videogames. It would have been nice to read, but my house lacks nice places for sitting and reading. Oh to have an armchair in my room. Also, focusing on a game seemed to result in less sneezing.

Anyway, I’m feeling better now, and am able to inflict my opinions upon you once again. So here’s what I played.

Gears of War 2 – the full game. I completed it in about three days. It’s a decent length for a modern shooter, actually, about fifteen hours. Just goes to show how little else I felt able to do.

The verdict? Like the first game, this is young, dumb, and full of… guns. Absurdly macho, pretentiously portentous and melodramatic, and in the usual manner of action sequels (hi, Halo 2!) it fleshes out a basic and cliched plot by ramping up the drama by an order of magnitude. Of course, in a videogame in which you shoot things this is perfectly acceptable.

The core mechanic remains as compulsively fun as ever. It’s still a game designed to be played co-operatively, though you can get through most of it on your own without hitting any design walls. Unfortunately there are points that prove deeply frustrating thanks to your AI buddy failing to act in an even remotely sensible manner. Generally I like to play games straight, get into the story and characters and act as me-as-they would. But even I repeatedly shot Dom in the head for some of his more irritating failings.

Resident Evil 5 (demo) – the question on everybody’s lips: is that new inventory system a good idea?

Okay, no, it’s the racism thing. Is it racist? Well… yes. Not in an outright bigoted sort of way. In an implicit, thoughtless sort of way. Not that this sort of nuanced distinction is one that teenaged videogamers tend to pick up on.

But, ultimately, it’s a Resident Evil games, and though they may be big they are never clever. Not even remotely. And hey, we were all cool killing the Spanish Christian not-zombie yokels in Resi 4 and the same will prove true of this installment. Videogames: they don’t solve problems, but they encourage you to ignore them in the pursuit of entertainment.

The game? Oh yeah. Very much along the same lines of its predecessor, although the buddy system may spice things up a bit. The demo throws you into a siege situation with no time to acclimatise, which hopefully isn’t true of the full game. Resi 4 introduced things gradually before having you flee in terror through a village full of crazies; in this demo, I mostly died.

Also, Chris Redfield should eat less beef.

Halo Wars (demo) – this may well be the first RTS game that actually works on a console. It’s been designed from the ground up for console platforms and it shows. Rather than spending most of my time wishing I had a mouse, I whizzed about building and upgrading stuff, manouevring manageably small armies around nicely-designed maps.

It’s a Halo game so it will probably prove a bit pompous and sterile, but the original trilogy generally pulled that off well enough and Halo Wars has its own immediate charms. I may even pick this one up soon.

F.E.A.R. 2 (demo) – something about jumping the shark springs to mind. Except it’s a ghost shark, and a clone supersoldier is riding it in slow motion.

I played F.E.A.R. years ago, shortly after it came out, but only picked it up again and played to completion this year. It’s still an excellent FPS. It’s sequel isn’t.

In terms of gameplay it’s diverting enough, although the Replica soldiers no longer feel remotely threatening – a far cry from the clever and dangerous squads of the first game. The Slo-Mo doesn’t last very long but recharges much faster, which alters the game’s pacing in a way I feel is detrimental. The horror elements, whilst visually impressive, are often ill-judged. Ghosts are hurled at you within minutes of starting play, rendering the game less flesh-pricking and more irritating (in the first game, they mostly appeared towards the end, appropriately ramping up tension and urgency). Alma’s occasional appearances remain effective, although they’re far less understated. Speaking of understatement: that giant mech sequence? Well, it’s entertaining, but again it completely misses the point.

Then there’s the story, where F.E.A.R. 2 seems simply lazy. Spoiler alert: in the first game, the Replica soldiers are commanded by a second-prototype psychic commander, and they shut down immediately upon his death. This prototype, along with the first – the protagonist – are the children of Alma, the powerful and terrifyingly malevolent spirit that returns for this sequel (after a superb cliffhanger at the end of the first game). It seems that in F.E.A.R. 2, which begins minutes after that cliffhanger, the Replica soldiers are up and running again. This makes little sense, although no doubt it’s explained. Also making no sense are the protagonist’s Slo-Mo powers (justified in the first game by that whole “first prototype” thing) and his ability to survive Alma encounters (justified in the first game as “being her child”).

I know we don’t ask for much from our FPS plots – I said as much in relation to Gears 2 – but I thought F.E.A.R. executed its story with subtlety and skill, and married it to a well-paced and thematically consistent game. Its sequel does not, and unfortunately this failure comes alongside a less satisfying gaming experience.

Dungeon Keeper 2 – still fucking fantastic. Funny, charming, compulsive, well-designed and persistently challenging. Why does no one make games like this any more? And why haven’t EA relaxed their sphincter and let GOG.com re-release this sucker? They’d both make a killing.

Tony Hawks Project 8 – I absolutely adored THPS 2 on the PlayStation, its sequel on the PS2, and even enjoyed a couple of the later games, although the law of diminishing returns remained stubbornly true. But this? I stopped playing this after I bought it because there was just too much to remember. It was no longer a game that even a half-witted buttonmasher could enjoy. It felt like work, and deeply frustrating work at that.

This remained true for my recent play and even the tutorials were obtuse and difficult, assuming the player already knew what they were talking about from prior experience. It’s no wonder that the series appears to have been killed off by the far more innovative skate. Gamers who actually know about skating have turned to that less cartoonish series, and casual players – even those familiar with a few games in the series – are turned off by the inaccessibility of Neversoft’s current titles. Who’s left?

I’m trading this sucker in. I rarely do this, but a game that only frustrates me is no game at all.

Far Cry 2 – it’s early days yet, but I’m liking what I’ve seen. Okay, as someone who actually reads about what goes on in the world I’m facepalming a lot at all the talk of rogue international arms dealers who single-handedly perpetuate all those African wars, and so on. Far Cry 2 strives for realism in a lot of ways and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to just come out with “Western governments sell arms and support different factions at different times depending upon their own political or economic interests.” Okay, that doesn’t give you an instantly established antagonist, but we human beings have these things called imaginations that can be used to generate ideas.

The game? Yeah, pretty good fun. Creepy creepy through the jungle, shooty shooty bad men in head. Occasionally, eaty eaty malaria pill.

Defense Grid: The Awakening – it’s a tower defence game, and it’s probably one of the best of its type. I can’t play this for too long or I get bored, but it’s really good fun to play for an hour or two and then return to a month later.

R-Type & R-Type II – I really, really suck at R-Type.

Arx Fatalis – Bought for £2.99 during a Steam sale and currently it’s mostly bringing the lols. I’ve read that it’s worth persevering with, but so far I have escaped from a jail and hit a guy with a bone, whilst enduring some terrible voice acting. Unique stuff there.

I’d be interested in the idea of the world’s civilizations moving underground to escape a dying sun if this weren’t 1.) really silly, and 2.) probably some sort of rehash of the Ultima Underworld series.

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And that’s a wrap. See what you can achieve in two days and an evening?

I also ate curry!

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