Monday, 15 March 2010

Rushing to catch up

The thick sea mists roll by, propelled by the gentle breeze. Everywhere is calm - the only sound is the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull, the rustling of the empty sails and the creaking of the ship's timbers. The captain steps out on deck and looks up into the murk. "Do you see anything?" he calls. Far above the deck, atop the mast, sits the lookout. He stares into the mists until his eyes burn, looking for something - anything - that might suggest where they are, what is going on. Anything that might suggest there is life out there. Finally, he replies. "I'm sorry sir. It's all quiet on the blog front."

I've got out of the habit of posting about games and writing on here in general. Other projects have taken my time and this blog has been quiet. Time to do something about that by running through the games that have kept me at various levels of interest recently - omitting Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 both of which deserve a longer post.

Fallout 3

I am a big fan of roleplaying games so when I found out I could spend time wandering around post-apocalyptic, alternative-history America in a game described as the best thing EVAA in far too many places, I jumped at the chance. To begin with I enjoyed myself, wandering around and drinking in the atmosphere generated by the lovely setting. I met a few monsters, shot them with a gun, and found my way to a town where I got to decide whether to nuke all the local inhabitants or rescue them with my previously-unknown bomb diffusal skills. I wasn't confident of success, but the sheriff seemed quite keen for me to give it a try (despite the horrific consequences of failure) so I told him I'd give it a go. Looking back, this is where my Fallout 3 experiences started going wrong. I should have stopped and left the gameworld with my expectations untarnished. Instead, I made the mistake of ambling around the town talking to the NPCs.

I should explain that I don't like playing arseholes in games. Whilst my characters take no crap from the NPCs, I do not enjoy playing through games like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic on "evil" mode being a dick to everyone I meet. Because of this the decision to save the town rather than detonate the nuke should have been a no-brainer but after half an hour of talking to the slack-jawed locals I needed no encouragement to wipe the snivelling lot of them from the face of the planet. Instead, I set myself a different challenge - if I could find ONE person worth saving I would spare them all fiery immolation. That town was saved by one person - and only one - who I didn't want to kill.

This sums up much of my experience with Fallout 3. I walked from one side of the (huge) map to the other, poking my nose into all manner of horrible holes and really trying to find something - anything - to care about. The scenary was lovely, but there are only so many empty shopping malls (or subway stations) I can stomach before losing the will to live. If you want me to engage with the world I need NPCs to care about. They need to say interesting and engaging things - preferably in a voice that doesn't feel like someone running nails over a blackboard (Moira, I'm looking at you) - and they need to give me sufficient dialogue options to be convincing. They don't need to, for example, thank me for saving their brother from a lifetime of drug addiction and say they will do anything to help me, then in the same breath call me a tool for because I asked stopped them and asked for directions to the shop (especially when THEY STOPPED ME in the street).

The thin dialogue is a result of the open world approach. It's great that I can go anywhere and shoot anyone, but it means that the game has to keep track of hundreds of different statuses all over the map and each NPC has to have sufficient dialogue to respond convincingly. To do anything else strips the experience of any immersion - in the case of Fallout 3 it leaves a lovely gameworld, but hollow with oh so little to care about inside of it. It doesn't help that the map is so big. In the end, I found myself wandering around the map with a laptop open on the desk beside me so I could look up places of interest and go sightseeing - something I'm sure the game designers didn't want me to be doing. Then my computer crashed before I could finish the campaign, I lost my save game and I couldn't face restoring it and trying again.


Steam is a wonderful thing. You can be sitting around, wondering what you're going to do to escape the mind-numbing tedium of treking through the Fallout landscape and all of a sudden you get a pop up telling you Braid is £3. So long Fallout, hello weird platform game!

Braid is a platform puzzle game which asks you to find a pile of jigsaw pieces and make pictures on the wall of your house as you attempt to find your lost princess or ... something. The game is incrediably arty - and I don't mean it has an interesting art style (although it does), I mean it wears a scarf even when it is warm and thinks that not explaining something is a great way of getting over a message. The story unfolds through a series of books that contain half thoughts and make little sense until you read them all together and analyse them and then maybe - maybe - you'll reach the same page as the author. Whatever, the story is largely irrelevant and only becomes intriguing during the excellent end sequence when everything changes.

The game itself is tremendous fun. The basic platforming is spiced up by a series of different time maipulation mechanics giving you the ability to rewind your mistakes, change the state of the level and a whole load of other things too complicated to describe. The puzzles are mostly well thought out and pleasingly mind-bending. Not that it is without problems - various levels have keys break if you put them in the wrong lock which renders you unable to finish the scene (thanks for that) and there is a super-secret star collection game that relies on you doing things at the correct time throughout the whole game and can easily be irrevocably messed up requiring you to start the whole game again. There are a couple of places where you have to perform pixel perfect jumps to get the jigsaw piece, rather than the challenge being working out the solution in the first place and after a while the music starts to do strange things to your brain. Despite this, Braid is well worth playing if for no reason than it is unusual. The presentation is beautiful and like all good puzzle games there is a real sense of accomplishment when you get that little bit further.

Plants vs Zombies

Another Steam impulse-buy - this time to give me a break from Dragon Age - this time for the bargain price of £1. Plants vs Zombies is like electronic crack - unbelievably addictive and impossible to put down.

PvZ is a simple strategy game. You plant plants in your garden which act as resource generators, defenders or attackers and use them to hold off wave after wave of zombies assaulting your house. As time flows past unnoticed, the zombie numbers and types increase and everything becomes far more frantic as your lines buckle and threaten to collapse under the onslaught before finally the blessed end of level sign appears and you get a new type of flower to make your life easier. Then you do it again, and again, and again. Then the birds start singing outside and you realise the world beyond your PC is getting up again and you're about to pass out.

Fortunately, there is an end to PvZ and that releases you from the madness. I urge you to play it - it's a charming, characterful defend-the-base style game that will keep you utterly addicted for hours and hours.