Monthly Archives: June 2017

Opinions on Spec Ops: The Line

For all the games I’ve played throughout my lifetime, Spec Ops: The Line has to be up there when it comes to being one of the weirdest that I’ve encountered. I don’t mean that it’s weird in the traditional sense, either – what I mean is that’s there’s so much going on, and so much the game tries to achieve and stir within you, that it’s honestly hard to know where to start talking about it.

Since that’s the case, let’s start with the basics; the gameplay and graphics, actual solid and concrete features that are easily observable. Unfortunately, as becomes rapidly apparent as you start playing, these are features the game is deeply lacking an abundance of in the quality department. This is very much a generic cover based shooter that you’ve probably played a thousand times before, and it’s not even a good example of that genre. It doesn’t feel engaging or enjoyable to play, and in fact pretty lacks anything that make it special in any way. Indeed, the only lasting memory of the gameplay I have is how the fiddly controls (especially regarding cover) are what killed me more than anything else.

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This is a problem that is then only exasperated more by the dismal visuals on display. While I accept this came out five years ago, the actual graphics are merely tolerable when compared to other titles from the same time period. I’m also aware that considering the game’s tone, the dull looking nature of every landscape you encounter is clearly a deliberate design choice. The real problem is just that everything’s so… Forgettable. You’ll pass through area after area completely passively, retaining no information as to what they may have ever looked like. There’s simply nothing engaging to grasp on to; no dramatic vistas or battlefields, and no compelling gameplay to try and counter this defect. It’s the purest definition of bland.

Yet – and here’s where things start getting weird – it’s clear Spec Ops: The Line never really cared for these matters in the first place. What it really wants to focus on, and the whole purpose for it existing in the first place, is how it’s a brutal deconstruction of the military shooter genre as a whole. This is a title that rips apart so many ideas and beliefs common to all the other similar titles around it that it’s honestly difficult to keep up. The idea that America is always there to save the day, the glorification of the army and war in general, even the idea that you could put violence into the form of a video game and call it entertainment… All these topics and more are picked up, scrutinised, and then torn to shreds.

It’s startling to see, and effective for the most part, but it’s not perfect. There’s a deep problem ingrained in the message that’s trying to be conveyed here, and to demonstrate this, you only have to take a look at the pivotal moment that occurs around the halfway point. Its dark, presented to you without compromise, and will make you feel incredibly miserable for a good while afterwards. It’s also the stepping stone by which the second half of the game really ramps the story and its moral message into high gear, with practically everything setting you down a emotionally dark path – loading screens and all.

The problem is this, however – you’re forced to do it. There’s no alternative way out, much as you might like to find one; the only way forward is to commit the atrocities set out in front of you. Yet since you’re so railroaded into doing this, the game telling you you’re an awful person afterwards feels a big hypocritical; you were never given a say in the matter, after all. To commit to a terrible analogy, it’s like me making you a delicious sandwich, placing it in front of you, and then criticising you when you actually decide to eat it – considering the way everything has been presented before the outcome, the outcome itself simply doesn’t make sense.

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The developers have argued in interviews that there is another option to take; simply turn it off. Yet that feels completely at odds to the way every other video game in existence works –  you’ve paid money and invested your time into this product, so you’re naturally going to wish to proceed and not just give up halfway. Besides, if the developers are stating that the best course of action is to stop playing – why create anything after this point? Why develop it at all? The fact this experience takes the form of a video game is both its greatest asset and its greatest curse – it needs to force you to do things to proceed forwards, but by doing so it fundamentally weakens their impact.

There are other smaller moments throughout which provide some form of actual choice, and it’s actually these that fare a great deal better. One in particular saw an intense situation physically panic me, pushing me into making a terrible decision. It was only after the event that I realised there was a better solution I could have taken, the realisation of which made me feel terrible in a distinctly more organic way.  This isn’t really a critique of the other emotional moments the game places in front of you – far from it – it’s just a shame that these moments of true choice aren’t a little more prevalent.

Spec Ops: The Line, therefore, is a lot to take in. As a piece of entertainment, something to actually have fun with, it’s a complete and utter failure. Whether it’s actually a good game is hard to answer as well, because I’m not sure how you define “good” in the context of something that’s as dark as this.  As a think piece, however – something to look at, examine and discuss – it’s a sterling success. It’s made me question things long after I put the controller down, and you only have to glance at the internet to see how much discussion this has created. That’s why it’s so weird and so much in a class of its own – and something that is, despite its many faults, well worth your time.

Opinions on… Thomas Was Alone

“Minimalist” is a term that can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways. A lot of the time it’s all about a lack of material possessions, keeping only what you really need to live a good life. At other points it’s the absence of complicated visuals; the presence of something that is simple yet appealing to look at, with no sharp corners or brash colours to distract the eye. Or sometimes it can go to the extreme, as is the case with Thomas Was Alone; a game that’s mad enough to consist of nothing but simple lines and rectangles.

I’m honestly not kidding – that’s pretty much all that’s on show here. Apart from a few subtle lighting effects working away in the background, this is very much a textbook example of what you see is what you get. Yet the overwhelming simplicity of this world isn’t as bad as you might be coming to expect; what really matters here is how the story builds up what this world and its inhabitants represents.

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You see, this is a tale of AI programming becoming self-aware, and via some brilliant and funny narration by Danny Wallace (Whose works you should check out, by the way!), each little AI block you control is given their own distinct personality. The main character of Thomas, for one, is naturally inquisitive and logical. Others you meet along the way have their own unique traits; there’s a deeply cynical square, an arrogant yet caring tall rectangle, and another bigger square that has delusions of being a super hero… On and on it goes, with new faces appearing all the time. It’s done to such a level that as the plot moves along you actually start to care for each of them in a weird little way. It’s never to the extent that you’re going to shed a tear for their plight, but it’s enough to keep you engaged with them throughout their journey – even though they’re just little coloured shapes. It’s ingeniously done.

So your gang of crazy characters is set up, but what exactly are you doing with them? Puzzle platforming, that’s what. It’s up to you to switch between all of them, using their unique abilities to navigate through each level, and getting everyone to their respective exits. That’s it. If anything, the gameplay is as minimalist as the art style – but again, that’s by no means a bad thing. Thomas Was Alone’s main strength when it comes to its gameplay is in the way its difficulty and pacing is second to none. Each and every level presents a challenge that is both not so hilariously simple that you can cruise through it in two seconds, but also never hard enough to create a situation where your progress comes to a screeching halt. The game also introduces new ideas and character abilities at a steady rate, keeping things fresh and entertaining, but never at a pace where everything feels overwhelming.

The process of actually navigating your way through each of these challenges, however, is where the cracks begin to show. For one, the act of switching characters is cumbersome, requiring you to cycle through all of them in turn to reach the one you actually desire, the camera trying to zip towards every character in turn at an almost nauseating pace. This isn’t too bad when there’s only three shapes to control, but when there’s six or seven, the endless cycling can start to infuriate somewhat. Couple that with a soundtrack that I found so incredibly annoying I proactively sought out the sound settings just to turn it down, and you can perhaps see how the blood pressure can slowly start to rise.

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There are a few other minor factors that also don’t help. The jumping mechanic, for one, feels at points oddly heavy and stiff, creating situations where I felt I wasn’t fully in control of where my jump was going – with a missed jump often wiping out a hefty chunk of progress in an instant. The level design at points also didn‘t help my mood, and really dents into what is otherwise flawless pacing – you can complete the bulk of some levels, only to realise you need to backtrack and do something with a character near its beginning.

Perhaps I’m just rubbish, but whether you attribute these problems down to poor play or not, they still lead to situations with feel unnecessarily annoying. All these minor niggles created a situation whereupon,
once I realised I was nearing the end of the story, I was quietly hoping it would hurry up and end already, just so I didn’t have to put up with another inconvenience. Considering the game itself is only three hours long, however, and… Well, you can perhaps see why that might be a bit of a problem.

Thomas was Alone is far from perfect, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. It’s still perfectly playable, and the charming narration and story do a lot to help plaster over the faults that might rear their ugly head as you move along. It’s a fine example of how much you can do with so very little, and also stands as a perfect counterpoint against the sheer flood of lazily made indie games with tiny budgets that flood the market every day. So don’t be a square – check this out.

Opinions on… The Mean Greens: Plastic Warfare

There’s a lot to be impressed by in The Mean Greens; Plastic Warfare. This thought began to occur to me when, after a good 15 to 20 minutes of waiting in the multiplayer lobby with no other players in sight, I began to realise how perfectly cheesy the music playing in the background was. It’s a delightful medley, one perfectly suited to taking pride of place in any respectable escalator, even down to the way it’s instantly forgettable from the moment you walk away. As time went by and many more minutes passed without a soul to be seen, it’s perhaps the only thing that kept me sane in those intensely dark moments of loneliness.

There were other things that did a great job at maintaining my sanity, however. The colourful menu screens were also helpful; the perfect tease for the vibrancy and craziness I could expect to be thrown into, once I’d mastered the arcane magic required to summon people at will to actually play the game with me. It gave me the same pleasure as knowing there’s a cake waiting in the fridge for when you arrive home from work; that anticipation of knowing that there is something to look forward to in your future. The fact that your journey home takes 15 years and the fridge is permanently locked kind of puts a dampener on proceedings, but hey… At least you know there is the tiniest possibility of getting cake. Or actual gameplay. This metaphor might be getting a little confusing.

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Riveting stuff.

The unpredictability present in The Mean Greens was another fun factor that kept me on my toes, and not knowing what would happen when I tried to search for a match proved to be gripping stuff. I could end up actually finding a match (unlikely), find myself in yet another lobby, or even be met with a loading screen that looks like it’s loading into a match, only to freeze and crash back to the main menu at a moment’s notice. It all proved to be incredibly uncertain and exciting, something that not many other games could offer in the same weird way. It wasn’t just trying to find a match which created such spontaneous moments, either. Imagine my surprise and delight when I tried to set the game to windowed mode, only for the screen resolution to completely mess up as a result. It created a situation where I was completely unable to click on anything, and was therefore required to force quit to desktop. I never knew what was around the next corner!

Persevere with this randomness for long enough, however, and with a little luck you might be placed into an actual match with a smattering of other desperate players – all of you finally free to play the game you’ve paid for. Unfortunately, this is where things kind of start to fall apart, because the gameplay just isn’t very fun. Take a good minute or so it to digest the poor quality soundtrack constantly on loop in the background, and then another minute to scour the map and find someone to shoot at, and you’ll soon realise that combat fails to provide any satisfaction.

For instance – shooting your gun doesn’t have any weight or sense of impact to it, making you feel as if you’re shooting marshmallows rather than bullets, and the simple task of knowing if you’re damaging someone or being damaged therefore becomes far more difficult than it has any right to be. Even getting a kill gives very little fanfare or rewards, therefore making all your efforts beforehand in taking the time to kill someone feel a little wasted. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

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Each map being a different game mode is also a nice idea in theory, but for one reason or another simply doesn’t work when put into practice. There’s one mode that sees you capturing flags on a speeding toy train. This sounds exciting, but it fails to feel action packed in the slightest, due to the way every death puts you so far away from the action it can take upwards of a minute to actually get back to where you were. Another mode presents almost precisely the opposite problem; you’re meant to float on rubber ducks to capture flags, but considering you can pretty much see and snipe anywhere from the spawn area (Up to and including the other team’s spawn), there’s really no incentive to ever move from your starting position. On it goes, map after map, the sparse amount of players only making games drag out their limited welcome even further. It’s enough to make you long for the lobby screen again.

With all sincerity, however, let me close off this review with an observation; there’s nothing wrong with ambition. Indeed, the developers of The Mean Greens should be commended for taking on the challenge of a multiplayer only shooter, especially when you consider how saturated the market is with them. The problem comes in the fact that I simply can’t help but feel that there should have been a moment where a healthy dose of realism was infused into proceedings. There should have been a realisation that this game, even with all best wishes, could have ended up as the barren wasteland that is has turned out to be. Measures such as the inclusion of bots in the future may not save this game or even make it somewhat appealing again, but at least they would create something that’s remotely playable playable. As it stands, however, this isn’t something that will keep you entertained.

Opinions on… Superhot

Time moves only when you move. It’s a simple idea, all things considered, but oddly enough its taken until the arrival of Superhot before it has truly come to see the light of day. The basic premise here couldn’t be simpler; use this power to the fullest, kill everything that is trying to kill you, and don’t die in the process. Sounds like a relatively easy affair, right?

Not quite. You see, it doesn’t take long with the game to realise that this isn’t an FPS in the traditional sense; one where you can immediately blast everything in sight without ever breaking a sweat. Instead, it takes on the shape or something closely resembling a puzzle… One that requires time and concentration, as well as dying a fair few times, before you can finally wrench victory from amidst the hail of bullets heading your direction. Yet this isn’t a bad thing – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s great satisfaction in slowly breaking down a level piece by piece, then finally succeeding in putting it all into action, that honestly makes you feel something that resembles being the ultimate architect of death.

Superhot knows its strength lies in this careful plotting and preparation, and in a sense its basic art style feels like a response to this. There are very few colours in play here, each serving their own purpose – black things are items you can use, red denotes enemies, and practically everything else is white or grey. With the rules clearly defined, it becomes a simple and pure battle of skill – you against the game, with nothing left to distract you or get in your way. When later levels see almost absurd amounts of enemies being thrown at you, it honestly feels like you’re fighting against the odds, with only your skills and time freezing abilities ever giving you a chance. Naturally, this makes succeeding in a situation where your back is against the wall all the sweeter – an actual accomplishment, instead of something you could have stormed through in under two minutes. It’s a good feeling.

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It’s also a benefit in Superhot’s favour that everything that you’re getting up to just feels really damn cool. For example, some basic strategy here might see you toss your gun at an enemy, swipe the gun he drops as it flies through the air, and then spin around in an instant to slay the dude sneaking up behind you… And heck, I think it sounds cool when I write that, never mind when you actually do it. You that’s not the limit of what you can pull off here, and the more you play, the more daring you will become. In the end, it becomes a challenge of squeezing out the best from every passing second and tiny movement, just to try and achieve something that essentially adds up to a few extra cool points. As the icing on the cake, once a level is complete you also get to see your antics at a normal speed, and that just ends up making everything you did look even more impressive. Thank goodness there’s the ability to save clips and upload them for all to see here, because some of the things you’re destined to pull off will be stuff you’ll be desperate to show off to the world.

Completing the story also grants you additional endless and challenge modes, which not only adds a thoroughly healthy chunk of gameplay to a title that would otherwise end up feeling slightly too brief, but also cranks the craziness up to the next level. Endless mode in particular is a treat, with wave upon wave of bad dudes pushing your abilities to the limit, as you desperately look for any solution or escape route as your margin for error gets smaller and smaller. It’s exciting stuff.

Enjoy feeling like the king of cool while you can, though, because Superhot’s got another goal in mind for you; it wants to mess with your head. Big time.

This is something that the game makes readily apparent it wants to do to you from approximately five minutes after you’ve started the game. This is because as a player of taking the first steps into the world of Superhot, you play the role of someone… Taking their first steps into the world of Superhot. Yeah, wrap your head around that. It creates a situation where every twist and turn may technically be aimed at the character you control, but instead feels like it’s directly aimed at messing with you, and it does so perfectly.

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There’s a lot going on that’s setting out to confuse and disorientate you, you see. Giant messages suddenly flicker and flash in front of your eyes (Photosensitive players beware, because this kind of started to give me a headache after a while), and the retro computer screens that form up the navigation and background to the game flicker and distort to ever greater extents as you descend further into madness. I won’t spoil anything in particular, but there’s a genius moment in particular where you’re compelled into doing something that you’d never expect, but becomes memorable simply because of the fact you weren’t expecting it. It’s clever stuff.

A special shout out also has to go out for the sound design. There’s literally no music in the game besides one track that only ever appears in the credits. Instead it’s down to a series of hums and beeps, constant buzzing static, and much more besides to create an incredible sense of unease. All things considered, I feel it honestly what’s on display here unsettled me more than any soundtrack sound ever have hoped to do. Heck, even the word “Superhot” gets in the action, getting repeated endlessly at the end of each level; it becomes almost a sort of madness mantra, one that I guarantee you is almost impossible to resist repeating yourself. It’s all so pleasingly disturbing.

Overall, then, I can find very little to actually fault with Superhot. There perhaps should be a little more to the story, all things considered, and especially considering the game’s relatively high price point. Additionally, there were perhaps a few scattered moments where the gameplay and difficulty slipped slightly too far into the infuriating category, but hey, maybe I’m just rubbish. In the end there’s nothing I can truly pick apart when it comes to what’s on offer here. When all is said and done… It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.