Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Monsters: An art house movie with gigantic space aliens.

This poster is misleading...
Monsters is the latest film in the current new wave of independently made sci-fi/horror movies. Premiering at this year’s South by South West film festival in March, Monsters has gained much buzz through favorable reviews and word of mouth. Directed by British special effects creator Gareth Edwards on a budget of just under $200000, the script is mostly improvised, the CGI all created on the director’s laptop, the entire movie filmed on location in Mexico by a crew of seven people which includes the starring cast Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy. Indeed, the story of Monsters’ production almost eclipses the premise of the actual movie itself. The premise of which is very simple.

Monsters begins by establishing a backstory: six years ago, a NASA space probe carrying recently discovered alien life crash lands in Central America, conveniently infecting much of the land surrounding the US/Mexican border. Now cordoned off as the ‘infected zone’ US and Mexican military forces are engaged with an ongoing war against the giant octopus like space aliens that now inhabit the area. The central storyline begins in Mexico where troubled photo journalist Andrew Kaulder is reluctantly tasked with escorting his boss’s daughter Samantha Wynden back to US soil. Unfortunately, with things in movies never being as simple as boarding a flight from the nearest airport, the pair are forced to journey through the infected zone and witness several close encounters with the third kind in order to get home to lead their normal everyday lives.

Monsters both is and isn’t a conventional sci-fi monster movie. In essence, it does follow the routine traditions of the greatest of these movies, where a society of some kind is threatened by an other worldly force. Where it breaks from convention, or at least follows in the wake of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, is where that moment of first contact is bypassed in favour of depicting a world and society that has gotten used to the presence of extra terrestrial life. Again, like District 9, the world of Monsters essentially documents how society struggles to cope with these oblivious creatures and the effort of authorities to contain them. In the pre title sequence, which is not unlike Cloverfield, we watch grainy black and white footage of US marines fighting one of the monsters before camera footage from a nose cone of a cruise missile comes in to finish the creature off. At the moment of the explosion, the camera cuts out and the movie’s title appear in practical silence. It is clear from the outset, then, that the monsters of the movie’s title may not be the actual aliens themselves but more the human's with their viking ways. I know its very deep.

Like District 9, the location of Monsters is the basis of much of the movie’s social commentary. The influx of illegal immigrants across the tortilla curtain has been a problem with which the US government has long been trying to regulate. The labeling of this particular stretch of land as the ‘infected zone’ is an apt metaphor for the summation of the tempestuous history of US border control, but the fact that the US army rather narrow mindedly perceive the monsters as threats to be exterminated is perhaps a rather clichéd depiction of US foreign policy which obviously stems from the ongoing war on terrorism. Edwards’ monsters are largely unthreatening, it is only when in the presence of weapons that they become defensive and dangerous. With civilians more than likely being caught up in the crossfire. You would have thought NASA, of all organizations, would have figured out the nature of these creatures, the fact that they are not the monsters that society hem claims to be. I mean, has no one thought to send in David Attenborough to gain a further understanding of these creatures’s existence? Media is not given a good rep in this movie obviously, perhaps rightly, with Kaulder's musings on how the picture of a dead child is going to pay him $50,000.  Added to this, the whole film is coloured by a kind of humanitarian backpacker ideology, which comes to a foray when our travelers see the massive walls built on the US border, designed to keep the aliens out of American soil.  This has been shown in contrast to the fairly budget Jurassic Park fencing that exists on the Mexican side of the Infected Zone. Looking 'in' on the US, the characters refer to the country as a prison cell containing a population of self-absorbed people largely ignorant to the woes and struggles of other less developed countries, which striked me as a little naïve, especially when you consider the country’s sheer size and its own problems born out of the fragmentation of social classes. I mean did New Orleans never happen in this alien infested universe?  It is all up for discussion however, which is definitely to the film’s advantage.

This is also essentially back story as well, Monsters is better described, simply, as a love story; or at least the meeting of a man and woman within the chaos and complexity of a world, which just so happens to be inhabited by these monolithic many tentacled space aliens. It could also be described as a road movie, where the journey is more important than the destination. In many ways I couldn’t help feel a touch of Spielberg throughout. There were a couple of nods to Jurassic Park, several moments for instance where I begged out loud in the cinema for the actors to turn the lights off. The design of the aliens are not unlike an organic version of the tripod walkers in the War of the Worlds remake. Surpassing both these movies however, is Monster’s spiritual connection to Spielberg’s first short feature, Amblin. A story which involves boy meeting girl who find themselves bonding through the advent of travel, as they amble through the desert to the beach. Social commentary aside, the personal story, the journey of the two leads is what shines most in this movie. Connections to Spielberg is only a compliment to Gareth Edwards. He made all this with a low budget, what could he be capable of making with the full backing of studio endorsement? Film buffs are certain to follow this director’s career with great anticipation from here on in.


Social commentary in action: US/Mexican border = Baaad...

Monsters is likely to divide audiences. It has been marketed as a monster movie, in the vein of Cloverfield, for the purposes of drawing in larger crowds. This is probably going to work against the movie as some viewers are likely to be disappointed in the slow burning character driven pace of the movie. They’ll have to wait for JJ Abram’s next movie, Super 8, scheduled for release next year in order to gain their next malevolent monster fix. Viewers of a more open mind however, will find much to like with Monsters. The film is beautifully shot, capturing the earnest joy of travel through colourful skies and the awe inspiring landscape of central America. The monsters themselves have a certain majesty and mystery. It is hard to belief that the director animated them upon a laptop, but he does so with subtlety to a degree that never spoils the creature’s mystique. The two leads play their roles excellently adding depth to their characters in a way that is familiar but by no means stereotypical, their on screen chemistry a result of their real life relationship. Overall, Monsters manages to be a tightly focused movie set within a grand and wonderfully realized world. A real nourishing mix of genres, a romance at its core, layered with sci-fi elements and socio-political sub text. An art house movie with space aliens, worthy of recommendation to any self respecting cinephile, who is eager for a slightly different experience at the cinema and is prepared to also make the journey themself.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Charlie goes Adventuring Part 5: Ko Samui






Greetings,

Part 5 of my Thailand vlogs has recently been uploaded to YouTube.  This one deals with Ko Samui, the largest island belonging to the Surat Thani Province, and tourist haven situated within the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.  Its a good one, generally, though within minutes of uploading I was informed that my video could not be viewed in Germany thanks to copyright with Warner Brothers.  Think it may be because of liberal use of Emilia's Big World...  A song that you can buy from itunes via an actual link underneath my video.  Internet eh? 

As always here is the link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbsOdUa1dac

And here is the link to the entire playlist, in case you are a bit behind:

PS: Tremendous apologies to all my loyal followers in Germany.  Next time it'll be flawless...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Charlie goes Adventuring in Thailand: Part 4 - Chiang Mai




Click here to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXLKuwpvI1c

The fourth installment of my travel logs is live on YouTube.  I'm quite happy with this one.  Its the longest video yet at 15 minutes 20 seconds, almost breaching my YouTube limit.  I'm particularly happy with my reference to 'Predator'.

As always follow the link to my video archives.   http://www.youtube.com/user/ToBePhair?feature=mhum#g/c/00C9212987A4775E
 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Medal of Honor: Leans towards a Tale of Two Engines...


Medal of Honor Single Player Screnshot 4
Real men have beards...

Medal of Honor (or Medal of Honour as it should be called) has a long history. Coming out of Dreamworks Interactive, the house that Spielberg built, I remember getting the first MoH on the original Playstation back in 1999. It had taken a while for a shooter in the vein of the N64’s Goldeneye to come to the PsOne; that is a shooter with an espionage slant, with various objectives, retrieving documents, blowing up objectives and an actual scoped sniper rifle. It was a very popular franchise that reached the apogee of genre trend setter with MoH: Allied Assault in 2002, the game that would spawn Infinity Ward and the Call of Duty franchise. Call of Duty went on to become what it is, a billion dollar franchise. It introduced iron sights and large scale warzones, where just a couple of bullets would take you down. It has led to the rise of Activision, and the household recognition of COD. In contrast the lineage of Medal of Honor has fallen by the wayside. I remember playing Medal of Honor: Rising Sun one Christmas when a friend introduced me to the first Call of Duty. There was no comparison. The last title was 2007s MoH: Airborne, which I liked very much, despite being innovative in its own way, perhaps the greatest WWII shooter of all time it also had the ability to lean...

In this regard, with the release of the new Medal of Honor, the franchise has come full circle with the inevitable reinvention. Once EA’s MoH was the trend setter, now it is the imitator, falling in line like a green recruit. Despite games such as Counterstrike or Rainbow Six, COD4 is the game that brought modern warfare to the masses. Lining up headshots through an ACOG scope, predator missiles and UAVs, robed AK wielding terrorists and gruff spec ops, this is also the imagery and substance of Medal of Honor 2010 or Moh: Modern Warfare if you will. Captain Price had a moustache in COD4, whilst Dusty MoH’s special forces badass, has a beard. The main thing that differentiates MoH boldly from COD or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is its setting within the real life and ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, a subject matter it deals with, with a notable degree of maturity and respect. Refreshingly, there is little melodrama in this game. There are no pictures of the World Trade Centres falling to remind you of the reason as to why you are fighting this drawn out war, there are no burning Burger Towns instead it is a very tight and linear narrative that tells the story of the warriors who are on the front lines. Risking their lives, doing the jobs that the majority of other people cannot.

Just as previous Medal of Honors and CODs have skipped on the beats of Saving Private Ryan and other movies like it, Enemy at the Gates, The Thin Red Line and Black Hawk Down it would only be a matter of time before the sniper scene from The Hurt Locker would be implemented into an FPS. There are various sniper scenes in MoH. Armed with a high calibre sniper rifle, you lie in hiding with your spotter buddy a mile away from your unsuspecting targets. Although there was that one scene in COD4, when you took into account wind resistance as you took out a prominent terrorist personality, the MP of MW2 can kit out players with a 50. Calibre Barrat rifle allowing them to unleash barrages of slugs at enemies from close range. We have come along way since that first guard tower in the Dam level of Goldeneye... It is an interesting take on that genre cliché. Distant and silent, a strangely jarring experience akin to the AC130 scene in COD4. As you rein in swift and instant death upon your enemies.

At first, MoH feels like a carbon copy of COD, right down to the controls. There are notable improvements on the formula however. Whilst sprinting, a tap of the B button will slide you into cover. There is also the ability to lean, that fabled mechanic from the bygone golden age of the PC shooter. A double tap of the Y button will whip out your pistol. Which is perfect when you don’t have the time to reload your main weapon in the midst of a firefight. The only problem with the campaign is that, even on its hardest difficulty, it is too easy. In one particular dramatic segment in which your squad is pinned down at the bottom of a hill, the Taliban reducing your cover with RPGs. The narrative of the game has you believe that your squad is running out of ammo, yet the game’s mechanics simply allows you to replenish your ammo for your machine gun. You can never run out of ammo in this game, not when you are using the primary weapons and you have squad mates with you. I was able to complete MoH in a single sitting. I was also able to complete MW2 on veteran when it came out, but this was largely down to an 8hr red bull sugar binge, in which I think I suffered from an exhausted state of shellshock. Even for the more averagely skilled FPS player, MoH is a walk in the park.


That said, I found the campaign very satisfying from start to finish. Despite MoH being another one of these modern warfare shooters, it actually manages to keep all the firefights varied. In the first mission you fight through city streets at night. Taking out the lights and navigating through buildings with your nightvision goggles. In other missions you’ll be in straight up assault mode, providing cover fire on a machine gun nest, as your fellow NPCs gain ground. Other missions will have you raiding enemy outposts upon a mountain with sniper rifles. You’ll be painting targets with laser designators and controlling predator missiles on enemy armour positions. More than most FPSs, MoH puts you in the role of a subordinate soldier. You will always be given commands or advice from your supervisors and I suddenly was gaining a degree of respect for the other characters.


After finishing the campaign with an optimistic feeling of satisfaction, I decided to hit the multiplayer for a couple of rounds but to my surprise I was somewhat disappointed. I expected the MoH MP to be of the same engine behind the campaign, but what we have is a regurgitation of the battlefield engine. Make no mistake, the multiplayer is battlefield. The game proudly proclaims that the multiplayer was created by battlefield creators Dice on the back of its box. For anyone who played, or are still playing, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 released earlier this year, the multiplayer for MoH will be more than familiar. Sound effects have been directly ported, the way your gun waggles as you run, the compressed look of the graphics and the way the sound effects sound slightly distant. In every aspect it plays, sounds and looks like Battlefield. The only real change is that most of the maps are smaller allowing for more frenetic fire fights. Don’t get me wrong. I love battlefield. I still play Bad Company 2; I enjoy the experience far more than a couple of rounds of MW2. There is a sense of progression in the matches. Success depends on how well your team is co-ordinated, with all the different classes supporting one another. You feel the change in battle, when you are making ground, when you are stuck in a stalemate. The battle has a progressive atmosphere thanks largely to the frostbite engine, which deteriorates the battlefield around you from built up areas to smoking craters. There is always the emphasis that you and your team are fighting in something. In my opinion it is a far more satisfying team based shooter than the super charged one shot p0wnage culture of COD. I love what Dice do with Battlefield, but here is the thing, if I wanted to play Battlefield, I would play Battlefield. I expected the MoH multiplayer to have the same mechanics as the single player. The ability to lean or go prone for example, to slide into cover, this would introduce new and inventive mechanics to multiplayer shoot em ups. If the multiplayer had stuck to its own engine, MoH would stand up on its own two feet. Something that would potentially rival COD, rather than being written off as a desperate clone. It would be a title that I would think twice about trading in so that I could get Black Ops in its opening week for £7.99 at HMV... As it stands, despite a decent campaign MoH as a complete package falls slightly and annoyingly short. A compromise between Battlefield and COD, two games that stand up in their own right. You just get the feeling that EA needed another modern warfare shooter in its 2010 Q4, and rather than create a new multiplayer engine, it just brought in the tried and tested engine, which Dice frankly does better in its own franchise. EA really missed an opportunity. I mean imagine an MP console experience that allows you to lean from cover...


Thusly, Medal of Honor 2010 is a tale of two engines. The single player is a highly linear experience, devoid of any kind of shallow gameplay tangents such as intelligence collection; it is high on narrative and military realism. It lacks the Michael Bay approach that Modern Warfare seemed to adopt in its second act. It is far more sober and straight and is actually more of a moving tribute to those guys fighting on the frontlines for our freedom. The campaign should be played through at least once. However, I imagine the highly scripted nature of the story may hinder the games replayability. The Tier 1 mode you unlock after beating the single player tries to extend the single player experience with time trials, scoreboards and point scoring but it feels kind of contrived especially in contrast to the levels in Halo: Reach for example. The multiplayer is really what spoils the game as a package. A regurgitation of the battlefield engine. EA is supposed to be the rebel alliance to Activision’s evil empire, but the rebranded diet version of the battlefield engine is half arsed and disappointing. It may still hold relevance to those who find a thrill in levelling up and unlocking new weapons and perks, but Bad Company 2 is a superior MP experience. Had MoH used its own engine as a basis for MP it would have been a worthy alternative to the multiplayer market. But I guess I will probably end up buying the Battlefield: Vietnam DLC from EA later this season anyway, so who really is the idiot?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Part 3: Ayutthaya



So!  I have been working this last week on my Thailand vlogs. I also rewatched watched the second series of Spaced and was by deja vu during the first episode, where Daisy returns to London after a month travelling around South East Asia with a camera.  Christ, I'm not that bad am I?  One of those people who goes off to Thailand with a camera?  Thinking that I'm interesting and have got something to say just because I've got a degree in English and am in Thailand with a camcorder...  This is not what I want to convey at all...
Anyway, Part 3 is up for your viewing pleasure.  It is focused upon two days spent in Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand when it was known as Siam.  There are ruins, there are beheaded buddhas, you may dislike the Burmese a whole lot more after watching it.  But you shouldn't. 

As always all videos can be accessed at my YouTube channel which is down the following electronic rabbit-hole:   http://www.youtube.com/user/ToBePhair?feature=mhum

Monday, 18 October 2010

Charlie goes Adventuring in Thailand: Part 2




Work continues on my video logs.  I may have a 90 minute feature by the end of it all!  This video centres on first impressions of Bangkok, covering everything from the Khao San Road to the Grand Palace, the automated rickshaw and the cheap suit!  Please enjoy, and feel free to rate, comment and subscribe!  Only if you feel that way inclined...  What exactly are you doing here anyway?  

Check out part 1 on my youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToBePhair?feature=mhum

Rental Review Roundup

Another month has gone and I’ve plundered my way through more rentals gaining achievements and the seeing that occasional moment of brilliance in amongst a sea of mundanity and shoddy level design.



Metro 2033


Moscow 2033: we're gonna need more vodka...

The genesis of Metro 2033 is actually quite interesting when compared to the majority of other titles that are spit balled across a boardroom. It is adapted from a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, that is to say, that it is not adapted from a film or a series, it is not a sequel, a remake or a reboot it is in fact one of those rare things : a new intellectual property! With that said, it is far from the most original game out there, it can be filed next to Stalker and Fallout in the category of post-apocalyptic dystopian FPS with varying RPG elements.


In a plot, that is nowhere dissimilar to Fallout, the world has been nuked and you play as one of the remnants of humanity existing in the vast subterranean environments of the Moscow metro. War never changes of course, and the metro tunnels are rife with an array of irradiated beasties as well as a couple of gun toting factions of communists and Nazis. This is a problem for the normal people that live in the tunnels, and so you are called into action to restore order to the world or at least just to survive it. Now I love Fallout, but what Metro 2033 nails brilliantly, is a sense of atmosphere. Perhaps this comes from the novelistic source material because the environments just have a greater sense of realisation. From the feeling of warmth and comfort in the human populated areas to the howling frozen wastes that exist above ground. The world of Metro 2033 feels believable, as well as harsh and alien.


Graphically, Metro 2033 is adept, but it will not win any awards. The character models are very dated. Combat can also feel stuck in the past. You have the option of taking the stealthy approach over the conventional auto-shotgun Rambo mode but the enemy AI is so flawed that taking the stealthy option is basically pointless. Fighting the various monsters is handled a lot better than the human opponents. There are several new ideas implemented into the games design. The game’s economy is based on bullets. You have your usual surplus amount of bullets and then you have your higher quality military grade bullets, which are worth more, and deal more damage. This causes you to think before you fire your weapon, which is a very interesting idea to implement when other games cause you to unload enough lead to kill God.


There is a very clear narrative drive in this title as well as a highly atmospheric tone and a handful of genuinely interesting mechanics, generally this proves Metro 2033 as being worthy of the thinking gamer’s time and money. There is a sequel in the works of course. Glukhovsky has already written Metro 2034 and with a bit more focus, we could be getting an even better game out of this.



Alan Wake


I've seen real sunsets that don't have as good graphics...
 Alan Wake was one of those blockbuster games, that every xbox fanboy was expected to buy on day one without question. I however, instinctively felt that I would not like Alan Wake. I did not care much for Remedy’s two Max Payne games, stripping away its clichéd noir plot it was essentially a third person shooter with a bullet time mechanic which was revolutionary when the first Matrix came out. I also hate so called horror games that try in earnest to scare you, but end up failing. The marketing hype surrounding the game sold mystery and horror, though despite all this the clue to the game’s story was already within the game’s title.


To my surprise then, I played through Alan Wake and actually found it quite good, even riveting. You play as Alan Wake, a prolific horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, who is suffering from writer’s block. In an attempt to ‘remedy’ this, Wake has agreed to take some time out in a remote mountain town called Bright Falls, with his wife. Taking that distinctly American Thoreau approach, they take residence in a log cabin on the shores of a lake. Needless to say, soon after arriving, spooky stuff starts happening, things go bump in the night, Wake’s wife gets kidnapped and the whole area is attacked by a dark shadowy presence. The plot is pure Stephen King of course, whilst Max Payne was influenced by film noir; Alan Wake is a character in a Stephen King novel. Luckily, I’m a sucker for King, and enjoyed all the injokes and realisation of his fiction.


The first thing that I liked about the game is its scale. Alan Wake has been in development for nearly a decade, going through various incarnations, showcased at several E3s past. Somewhere in the earlier processes, the game was sketched as an open world game, though the finished product is not, the scale has the essence of a sprawling world. Bright Falls is a fantastically realised environment, from the grand mountain ranges, to the down to earth portrayal of small town America. As with other games, Elder Scrolls 4 and Farcry 2, Alan Wake is a game that relishes in the beauty of natural landscapes.


The pacing of the game is also good. During the day, things are normal though obviously not without menace. Wake tries to bring the townsfolk into some kind of awareness whilst trying to maintain his own sanity. At night, however, the game adopts the more conventional survival horror aspects. Shadowy axe wielding psychopaths come at you and your only defence is to fight them or to just leg it. Combat is handled ever so differently from other third person shooters. Light becomes a feature, of which you use to weaken your enemies before you pelt them with shotgun fire. You are equipped with a torch, but you will also come across flares which act a bit like grenades, and flare guns which effectively become RPGs. Occasionally the game will go into slow motion mode revelling in the illuminated carnage of it all.


So is the game scary? Well it certainly has its moments, usually generated when provisions are scarce and you are faced with an onslaught of murderous darklings. It doesn’t have the brooding horror of the early Silent Hill games or even the more recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent and there is nothing as mentally draining as the derelict shopping centre level in the first Condemned game or LISA TREVOR in the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil. There are parts of the game when inanimate objects come to life under the influence of the darkness, and though this adds variety to the legions of axe murderers it wasn’t very scary, coming across like an episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. As a filing cabinet comes soaring across the room hitting you in the face. It’s pure slapstick.


The game is engrossing. There is an element of absurdity to it all and certainly a degree of the American gothic. The graphics are the best of recent memory, through all the desperate running through the forests you may remember when trees were composed of nothing more than two sprites. The might pine trees on display reflect the immensity and the antiquity of the American landscape. Combat is satisfying, scoring the darkness of a target with your torch before unleashing that final bullet to the head is satisfying. Better yet, when you reload your gun, you can actually tap the ‘x’ button to reload faster. More shooters need to do this, especially most horror shooters. The game perhaps goes on longer than it needs to and the climax has something to do with a hulking great aquanaut. Remember this game’s development probably predates Bioshock and its development. And what was with the collection of thermos flasks? The only reason I can fathom is that coffee is a stimulant and prevents sleep. But still, an unnecessary collection element.



Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands


Ah!  Skeletons!

Like any self respecting gamer, I loved Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Its sequels were nowhere near as good of course, though I did admire the 2008 reboot for simply taking a risk and doing something different with the franchise, namely by adopting an enchanting new art style. Despite my admiration for the series, I have little intention of seeing the recent film adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Big action blockbuster movies just don’t cut it for me anymore. Why settle for a third rate action movie, whilst I can have a more involving experience actually playing an action adventure game where I am the hero? There is no way that the experience of watching Jake Gyllenhaal leap from rooftop to rooftop is going to compare to the satisfaction of pulling off fluid movement and acrobatics via a control pad in the original Sands of Time.


The Forgotten Sands was released as a product to support the film release and has you returning to the role of Datstan, the prince from the sands of time trilogy. Fans of Nolan North’s Prince from the 2008 remake will have to wait a little longer for its sequel I guess. The story involves you infiltrating a temple with your brother before you unwittingly release an evil force upon the place, again. Hardened players of Persia will not blink an eye. Same old story, but so long as there is platforming right? Well, about half an hour into the Forgotten Sands, you realise that this game is not as well thought out as previous titles. Navigating the temple becomes an exercise in merely pressing buttons. You press right trigger to freeze water, you press left bumper to turn those transparent platforms into solid objects. And if you mess it all up, you use the sands of time to rewind time. Previous instalments have never felt this routine and dull.


Combat has never has been the series’ strength and it returns with the added complexity of MORE ENEMIES ON SCREEN. These enemies are all clones of one another, exactly identical. There is no variation at all. They hardly pose any kind of threat even on the hardest difficulty and require little effort to despatch. Everything about this game is undercooked. It is more of the same, almost four years after the Two Thrones. A highly derivative title in ubisofts otherwise above average roster. There may actually be more enjoyment in watching Jake Gyllenhaal parkouring it in live action instead of playing this unnecessary fourthquel. A limp slap in the face then. Bring back Nolan North’s Prince.


Singularity
lovely...

Singularity does not have the production values of some of the more popular shooters of our time. The plot is strictly B-movie, the aesthetics very similar to the retro 50s schtick of Fallout and Bioshock. You won't really care about the time travelling story line, in which upon doing a run of the mill black op mission upon a top secret Russian research facility, your jarheaded marine accidentally goes back in time and inadvertently changes the course of history. The ability to use time as a weapon is a fun distraction as opposed to the usual FPS armoury, however. As you fast forward the aging process on all those assault wielding foot soldiers that stand in your way.

Graphically, the game is quite ugly when you compare it to other games currently on the market. Textures sometimes have that shiny gloss look to them, like a roasting chicken. Graphics aren't everything of course, and if you stick with the game you will find yourself getting sucked in. The pacing is particularly good, one minute you'll be fighting your way out of a sinking ship, other times you'll be battling a large insect monster upon a train. The game throws you against a variety of different foes ranging from enemy soldiers, zombies, patasitic bugs and inter dimensional beings. Nothing you haven't seen before, but mixed and matched effectively during the course of the game. It also gives you an array of weapons to play with, including a spear gun and a rifle that fires bullets that you guide towards your enemies. There is also a decent explorative element in the game, much like Bioshock, which more FPSs should use. The game shares further similarities with that game by including collectible audio logs, the difference being that you don’t pick them up, you have to instead stand around and listen to them.

Essentially it is a decent game that you will pick up and play and complete over the course of a weekend. There is a multiplayer mode that tries to ape L4D's versus mode, but it is nowhere near as enjoyable or balanced. The monsters don’t particularly give you any form of empowerment. Maybe development should have concentrated on the single player. Regardless, Singularity is a decent rental if you are into the genre and B-movie thrills. Love it and dump it. Feel like a real man, why don’t you...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Charlie goes to Thailand Part 1



So last week I posted a link to a taster of my upcoming videos about my travels in Thailand.  Now, I come with the link to part one.  Please enjoy (and if you would kindly thumbs it up...).  Part two is on its way.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Thailand: VLOGS!!!
video

In news that is completely unrelatable to my usual video game spiel... I recently spent a month travelling around Thailand armed with a Sony Bloggie. I videoed alot of footage and am working tirelessly at producing a series of travel logs documenting my experiences. Its going to be good! The above video is just a taster. Also the music I used was Johnny's Dream by Masters of Reality (good isn't it?) off their Cross Dover album.

If the video doesn't work, check my youtube page... thats right I have a youtube channel, my how I grow... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4wpvUTUdes
HALO: Reach
remember reach, remember bungie


All in a day's work...


Back in 1999, when there was no Gametrailers or YouTube, avid gamers would rely on a large culture of magazines and demo discs to learn about the next biggest thing in gaming. Occasionally, we may have even come across that rarest of occurrences, the gaming television show. One specific show that I remember with great appeal was Game Over on the now defunct satellite channel .TV. Hosted by Andy Collins, the show provided tongue in cheek despatches from the video gaming world. The Game assassins would review the latest games like Brunswick Pro Circuit Bowling with much relish, whilst the space girls focused on tips in space. The show also marked the humble TV origins of a one Matt Berry, before he went on to greater things, namely Dark Place, The IT crowd and of course those Volvic Mineral Water adverts starring Tyrannosaurus Alan. I am going somewhere with this intro...
Essentially, it was on this show, that I was first introduced to a game that was specifically designed for the Mac by little known developer Bungie. The demo footage revealed a simple but staggering in concept, a buggy, complete with realistic suspension being chased by two purple hover bikes across a strange alien landscape. This was my introduction to Halo. There was talk from the developers of a ring planet, and open ended combat, but there was also talk of co-operative gameplay. The buggy, of which I would come to know of as a Warthog could seat three players. One would drive, whilst another manned the machine gun turret and the third rode shotgun. This was enough to send my thirteen year old mind into overdrive. Co-operative gaming hadn’t come into the mainstream as of yet. We had our split screen Goldeneye, our two player Machine Hunter or Streets of Rage, we may have even been lucky enough to play Counterstrike on a decent connection but the point is, co-operative gaming just didn’t exist as it does today, but it was built into Halo from day one.
I quickly remembered the names Halo and Bungie, to the point I even played Oni, Bungie’s pre-Halo game, a decent enough brawler with a manga art style and a mechanic involving performance enhancing drugs. I watched the development of Halo closely, as it went from a third person shooter for the Mac to first person shooter as the secret weapon behind Microsoft’s new gaming platform The Xbox, the game that was now called Halo: Combat Evolved. I then got an xbox with a copy of Halo, and the rest is history. What I am trying to say is that I am a fan of Halo. I had always been a fan of first person shooters, from Doom to Unreal Tournament, to Half-Life and Perfect Dark, but what Halo did was open the doors and define how first person shooters should be played. With friends. Halo became the reason to buy an xbox, to have 16 player LAN parties. To say Halo broke new ground is an understatement. Halo brought console based first person shooters into vogue, effectively opening up the floodgates. Before Halo, there was only Goldeneye on the N64. There was of course the brilliant Perfect Dark, but nobody brought it, despite it being ahead of the times. Elsewhere what was there? Medal of Honour? Red Faction? If there was no Halo, there would probably be no Call of Duty and certainly no Modern Warfare 2 generating over a billion dollars in sales, as of now the most profitable entertainment event in history. But certainly, Halo did prove that first person shooters could thrive away from the mouse and keyboard and into the more profitable arena of console gaming. It is for this reason that Halo is both loved and hated so passionately.
Halo: Reach is Bungie’s fifth and final Halo game before they go off to spend the next ten years in bed with Activision developing this new supposedly ground breaking IP. Based on the Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund, which was initially written as a prequel to the original game, Reach effectively brings the franchise full circle on itself. Reach itself is a planet, where a fairly large human colony has been based. The planet is also home to the Spartan super soldier program, of which the series’ iconic Master Chief was spawned. The whole marketing strategy behind Reach has been based on the notion that the player already knows what is going to happen to the planet, even if they are unaware of the surrounding fiction. For those who are unaware, Reach is doomed, attacked and glassed by the alien forces of the Covenant. At the start of the original Halo, the Pillar of Autumn, the ship that houses Master Chief and Cortanna, makes a blind jump into slip space after escaping Reach. It is here that they miraculously come across the Halo ring world which kicks off the trilogy.
Halo: Reach has you play as a new recruit to Noble team, a team of Spartans who are supposed to precursor the master chief. Like the Master Chief and the Rookie from last year’s ODST you are a faceless member known only as Noble Six. The strength of the character is that he is entirely of the player’s own creation. The game grants a plethora of armour that you can customise your super soldier with. You unlock new variants as you progress throughout the game, these variants are completely cosmetic and do not affect the way you play the game but they emphasise the connection of the player to the character. You take your character as you initially begin to investigate a distress call from a remote farming location, where it quickly becomes apparent that the planet has been invaded by Covenant forces. What is immediately clear, is a darker more brooding atmosphere, the Halo trilogy feels like a lucid dream in comparison. That said, the game progresses much in the way previous Halos have, you have vague open world levels where you may have a warthog. Other levels will give you a tank, whilst others will encourage flight.
The campaign is excellent in my opinion, probably the best of the series. Despite being of similar length to previous games, the campaign suffers very little down time. Halo 2 and 3 specifically suffered from grind. Piloting a tank is usually fun for the first time but a second time it starts to feel a little stale. In reach, the tank is only limited to one level, which is just about right. The absence of the flood is definitely to the campaign’s benefit as well. Fighting the Covenant has always been the best part of the halo campaign and it is certainly never been better until Reach. The AI has improved and the covenant are once again a threatening prescence. The return of the elites is particularly a welcome re-addition to the series, after suffering the Brutes since the third act of Halo 2. Though the brutes do appear midway through the game, they are nowhere near as tough as the revamped elites, who are, through lack of a better word, ‘proper bastards’. When I first played through the game, I played on heroic difficulty and was quickly cut down upon first encountering the elites on the first level. When the tougher elites are around, you are constantly reaching for the plasma/UNSC pistol combo to despatch them before they swamp you. It gives the alien menace a different energy, they no longer speak in English, grunts no longer run away from you screaming, ‘little people first’. The combat is much tighter, when you are on foot, the holy trinity of gun, grenade and melee works as well as it ever has. There are fewer weapons than other shooters, but every weapon has a particular use. The reworked battle rifle, the DMR is a favourite of mine, but I always find keeping my assault rifle in support in case I need to pepper large swarms of enemies.
The fifth mission is a particular favourite. It begins with you on foot, steamrolling covenant forces across a beach until you get to the launch site, where you begin the much publicised ‘space’ part in which you board a space combat craft and jet up into the planet’s upper orbit. The combat section essentially plays like Lylatt Wars or the space sections in Battlefront 2 as you swat banshees and the shielded seraphs. There is a brief cut-scene in which human forces prepare their next offensive against the covenant, whilst huge explosions silently engulf the planet’s surface like ripples in water, all to the sound of Martin O’Donnell’s majestic score. This would not be a proper review, if I didn’t pay homage to the score, though much of the magic of Halo lies in the music, like the greatest space operas, lies in Martin O’Donnell’s compositions. The space combat is kept quite brief, never outstaying its welcome but leaving a little wanting. The day when multiplayer incorporates space combat with a simultaneous ground battle is the day you get one step closer to making the greatest Star Wars game ever. If Bungie had incorporated this into multiplayer then they may have just revolutionised the genre once again, but maybe this idea is too ambitious for this current generation of consoles. Going back to the level, it progresses with you boarding a covenant space craft in zero gravity, your bullets muffled by the vacuum of space. With the atmosphere that very much conveys the feel of the ‘belly of the beast level’ from the original Halo you fight your way through the corridors of the space craft until you reach the control room, before escaping the ship before it all goes up in a glorious explosion.
The Fall of Reach is undoubtedly a catchy title for a book, but is it a good narrative for a game? How can a genre like the first person shooter, which essentially relies on conveying the fantasy of empowerment over hordes of enemies, tell the story of mass genocide? Where not even your own character makes it out alive no less. It is an intriguing theme to be sure and it is certainly not the first game to try to grapple with this concept. The modern warfare series has frequently done this, probably most effectively in COD4, when you control a US marine as he staggers through a silenced warzone under the shadow of a mushroom cloud, doomed. In Reach, you finish the campaign, successfully completing your mission and all that stops you from the end credits is a firefight section. The atmosphere is dusty and covenant drop ships roam the skies like sharks at feeding time. As you take damage, your visor cracks and splinters until finally you are beaten. Though it does not prevent you from trying to survive the onslaught, just to see whether you can survive Reach, or see that final cutscene when your character walks off into the sunset, alive to fight another day. It was the only way to finish the game really, but compared to say Modern Warfare, where you were constantly dying as you were running down that frikking hill to get to the helicopter whereupon the narrative kills you anyway. Reach was alot more satisfying, but I think it comes down to mood.
Mood is what elevates Halo over other first person shooters and it is something that only real Halo fans can see. There has always been a sense in Halo that you are exploring and fighting in a real world, more so in Reach, where Bungie have spent more time on level design to create a believable world. A common criticism of the Halo trilogy was that it did not have much variety in its indoor sections, which were essentially the same maps stuck together. Conflict in Halo, always made you feel you were part of something big. Enemies don’t just spawn into the map, they are usually dropped in via drop ships. They feel as if they are part of a larger machine; with you, the player, in the position of antagonist. I like the Call of Duty games, don’t get me wrong. But I do feel that Halo has something special. Whereas Call of Duty offers a shooter experience that is grounded in realism and tighter shooting mechanics, the joy of Halo multiplayer has always been in the variables. It is about walking into a man cannon at just the right time when you hijack a marauding banshee in midair. It is about tagging that bastard with the awesome helmet, ending his spree in a phenomenally cathartic blue explosion. It is about rocket firefight, where you gleefully jetpack over a hordes of grunts with unlimited ammo. It is about careering through the campaign in a warthog with your friends, feeling invincible. This is part of the reason why Bungie implemented the theatre section to the game, so that you could capture these monumental moments, but it was also to display the sheer amount of activity that was going on at one time, whilst you were seeking to hi-jack that ghost. In Halo 3 for example, whilst you were tackling the scarab, you could use theatre to focus on one of the hovering pelicans, you can see the soldiers in its hold. You could see allied AI picking targets. With Halo, there is little in the sense of smoke and mirrors, that is rife in so many other video games, the battle is all there to be displayed, scrutinised from every angle it is as if Bungie dare you to attempt to catch their engine out.
I haven’t even begun to review the other components of the game. The multiplayer, the firefight modes, the challenge structure or even Forge World, which now allows players to create their own maps. Forgeworld is effectively a gigantic map, a playground where you can spawn in various items and objects, creating your own structures for multiplayer. The hardened PC player is likely to guffaw at this mode in comparison to modding culture that surrounds titles like Half-Life, but it is still there, should players want to milk more out of their game. Judging what has been accomplished with Forge in Halo 3, we are going to be seeing all manner of ingeniously made structures. If I may make one request, a massive Mad Max style Thunder Dome, with interlinking raceways for use of Mongoose.
After the understated release of Halo 3 ODST last year, Reach is a return to form for the franchise. It does not really do anything new with the franchise it is an accumulation and a perfecting of everything that has made the franchise great over the last nine years. There are a few negatives, the frame rate chugs at times when things get extra chaotic and the checkpoint system can be a little frustrating. Regardless, these aren’t even scratches in the game’s reputation. It is a complete package, the campaign is endlessly replayable, designed with a new found affinity for four player co-op, when that fails, the multiplayer suite will have players playing for years to come. Halo and the master chief are sure to return to us in some form. Microsoft will be sure of that. Whether it will be as good without Bungie is another matter.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Rental Review Roundup

A couple of months ago, I started an account with LoveFilm with the sole purpose of renting out various video gaming titles that I have missed out on, partly through financial frugality, but also because of the sheer awesome torrent of activity that modern life forces upon me in spite of gaming. In short, renting is great. You don’t have to commit anything, if a game is rubbish, you can send it back in the mail and get the next title. You also get a serious boost to your gamer score. An apt metaphor would be presented as a happy marriage between prostitution and penis enlargement basically.

 Heavenly Sword.

This is a man's world

Originally released in 2007 and exclusive to the PS3, Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword has been on my list for a while because I am always interested in a Sony exclusive, being a playstation kid at heart. Ninja Theory are back in recent news, with new game Enslaved: Odyssey of the West coming out in early October and a reboot of Devil May Cry currently in development. The studio have built strong ties with actor Andy Serkis, who leant his acting experience with motion capture technology to both Heavenly Sword and their next game Enslaved: Odyssey of the West, which he not only directed but starred in, as a beefcake version of himself.
You play as Nariko, a red haired Amazonian woman voiced by Anna Torv who finds herself wielding the heavenly sword, a weapon of great power that is prophesised to rid the world of great evil, though in so doing, it corrupts the mind of the warrior using it, lord of the rings style. Sought after by Andy Serkis’s big bad emperor, King Boham and his colourful axis of evil, Nariko must protect the heavenly sword whilst battling evil constantly. This all takes place in a colourful fantasy world that is influenced by Eastern oriental imagery.


Nariko has the potential of being one of those rare things in gaming, a balanced heroine that is not overly sexualised like Lara Croft or characteristically mute like Samus Arran. Most crucially she is a woman in a man’s world. The back story of the game reveals that Nariko is identified by this, a disappointment to her father for being born a woman, her birth resulting in the death of her mother. The heavenly sword itself is a weapon to be wielded by a man. The feminist gamer could read into the opening of the game, a flash forward sequence in which Nariko fights a losing battle against a horde of enemies, all men.


Gameplay wise, combat is the name of the game. Essentially, Heavenly Sword is an action/combat game that uses the popular God of War template of accessible combat, quick time events and ‘brutal’ finishers. The combat is effective though predictable, you use light/heavy attacks interlaced with acrobatic evades and the odd finishing move which usually sees her thighs breaking his neck. The sword you wield essentially functions as three different weapons, fast attacks, ranged attacks and heavy attacks, different enemies require different strategies and the controls of the game keep the combat relatively easy to fight, whilst giving a degree of depth and development as you fight harder enemies. Simply it works.


Unfortunately, In the style of most of the early PS3 exclusives the game places much emphasis on using the six axis controls where ever necessary. Thusly you get these annoying sections where you take control of Nariko’s sidekick Kai who fires arrows which you control individually with the sixaxis. It is certainly not a broken mechanic but it becomes tedious and is really the only deviation from the more conventional combat that comprises the bulk of the game.


One of the game’s saving graces is Andy Serkis, who really adds character and humour to the game. Though Nariko’s quest is formulaic and overtly serious, some cut scenes centres upon King Boham and his plotting with his axis of evil. These scenes are genuinely funny, a bit like those scenes with Doctor Evil in the Austin Powers movies. These cut scenes are well acted and wittifully written and are even worth playing through the lacklustre levels just to watch. Though you could just Youtube them...


Heavenly Sword is a functional brawler to be sure. Combat is tight and satisfying. Cosmetically the game even after three years still holds up well. In the end however, I felt the game was a bit too shallow in gameplay. Ninja Theory went to great lengths to create this big bright world and all these remarkable vistas, but the controls do not even grant you a jump button. The game, world and story could have benefited from explorative elements. Even God of War grants you a certain degree of freedom between each choke point, in which you battle against enemies. Heavenly Sword is too linear for its own good, going from arena to arena via one of the terrible six axis ventures leading finally up to a boss fight.


FEAR 2
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin znamy wymagania minimalne
OH DEAR...
I had played the first FEAR a couple of years ago, but was put off by the game’s sterile environments and tacked on scare tactics. Regardless the fire fights were impressive and there was a certain satisfaction slow-mo kicking some hapless goon in the face. With this in mind, I tried FEAR 2 with an open mind and suddenly realised just how competent an FPS it really is.


This is an amazing feat particularly when there is nothing in FEAR 2 that strikes me as unconventional of the genre. We have seen the same settings: deserted offices, apocalyptic urban environments and dark pipe lined sewer tunnels in hundreds of other games, the first FEAR being a good example in itself. We have seen the same mechanics, a slow motion bullet-time ability that gives you an edge over your enemies. We have fought against the same enemies, a faceless mercenary bunch and the odd monster or two. What makes FEAR2 brilliant is its combat, its frenetic and visceral fire fights. The developer clearly realise which elements go into a great shooter. The guns all feel powerful, there is a technique to using each. The enemies are controlled by a decent AI system, which has them run for cover and throw grenades. On hard difficulty, these enemies pose a significant challenge and you constantly feel blessed when you have the ability to go slo-mo and see each of your shots landing. Killing said enemies is a gory business particularly if you fire a shotgun at close range for example. Then there are the environments, which all react realistically in the middle of a fire fight. Glass shatters, paper flies, and bullet holes puncture the walls. Of course when guns fail there is possibly no better feeling than roundhouse kicking a guy to the face.


The game is let down by the horror elements which try in earnest to scare you at every possible moment. The game is called FEAR, so I guess the developers thought that this is the direction they were supposed to go in but it is all so woefully contrived. I paid no attention to the plot or the various bits of information you pick up throughout the game, but you are followed by Alma, a supernatural entity that is basically the girl from the Ring. Essentially she covets you, messes with your mind, floating objects in front of you, whilst killing off other people for the sheer hell of it. Sometimes she grabs you from out of nowhere and you have to rapidly press the B button just to get her off. Along with Alma, you will also be tasked with fighting off other supernatural entities including puppet master beings who bring the corpses of the dead to life and ghost like beings that are almost invisible save from the faint flicker of their form. Fighting these enemies offers a different experience but is nowhere near as good as fighting the generic soldiers.


In conclusion, FEAR 2 offers a challenging and engaging shooter experience, that works brilliantly at conveying John Woo style shoot outs. It caught me completely by surprise and easily stands up against Halo, Modern Warfare and Killzone 2 in the heavily populated FPS arena. Combat is satisfying and endlessly replayable. It is let down only by the tacked on 'horror' sequences but I'd still recommend any shooter fan to check this game out.


50 Cent’s Blood on the Sand
Mr Cent shows the US Army how its really done.

I rented this game after laughing about it and then hearing several favourable reviews. I am no fan of 50 Cent's music, and the game didn't make me any more partial. I am white, with a capital ‘why’. In fact what I ended up doing was playing classical music through my xbox hard drive and thusly playing the game accompanied by Canon in D minor.
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is a third person shooter starring Mr 50 Cent, various members of G-unit and even Lance Reddick from Lost and The Wire! The game takes place in some anonymous war torn middle eastern country, where 50 is performing a gig through which he is paid by means of a priceless diamond encrusted skull. Of course things do not run smoothly, 50 is ambushed, and some strange woman runs off with his skull, to which 50 responds with the immortal line - 'Bitch stole my skull!' This puts in motion an epic quest through city streets, and ancient ruins fighting off waves and waves of bad guys and no less than five helicopter gunship boss fights.


As a third person shooter the game works remarkably well. Shooting is satisfying and addictive as the game throws many mini-challenges throughout each of the levels, boosting your score. The game is let down by a dodgy cover system which often feels transparent to bullets and perhaps a lack of commitment to the cause. The game’s saving grace is that it does not take itself seriously, the game is so obviously tongue in cheek. Seeing 50 cent finish a bandanna wearing bad guy with a knife to the chest is hilarious rather than grim. 50 Cent and his accompanying G-unit sidekick fire off various insults (insults you can UNLOCK through points!) whilst spewing out all the conventional military verbatum. You begin to wonder where 50 Cent and G-unit received all this military training. Life on the streets must have been tough, and though Mr Cent was famously shot nine times you still question his involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.


In conclusion, this game is well worth a rental at least. It has co-op so you can enjoy the gangsta rap lunacy of it all with a friend and a degree of replayablility as you rack up more and more ‘ice’ to get the gold medal for each level. It pushes all the right buttons and if you do actually like 50 Cent then this will probably be the best game ever made.


Dante’s Inferno
I'm absolving him.  Honest...


In keeping with the winning formula of God of War series, Dante's Inferno seeks to emulate a piece of classical literature through ultra violence and minor titillation. Visceral Games, the makers of Dantes’ Inferno also made Dead Space, which used the conventional survival horror formula to great effect and actually bettered Resident Evil 5. Unfortunately, in emulating the God of War formula, playing Dante's Inferno only reminds you how good those games were in comparison. It isn’t just the combat and the green health orbs, the entire story is told in the exact same way as the original God of War. Of course what Dante’s Inferno also adds to the mix is actual shit. Not just through shoddy level and tasteless monster design but some of the enemies do actually attack you with their own excrement...


In a nutshell, you play as Dante, a knight fighting through the crusades, who may or may not be guilty of one or two of the seven deadly sins. His beloved Beatrice is killed and taken to hell, thus Dante must battle through the nine circles of Hell and come out on top against serial wanker Lucifer. You are made to fight various monsters and demons ranging from the usual undead footsoldiers, siren like entities that shoot scythed tentacles out of their vaginas and these gluttonous worms that are essentially penises with teeth, a concept which people are naturally supposed to find fearful at a deep psychological level. The boss for the lust level also produces attack babies out of her breasts. Yeah, it is that kind of game... Dante’s Inferno’s problem is that it tries too hard to shock the player. Whilst God of War is violent in a gleeful way, Dante’s Inferno just tries too hard. In attempt to deepen the combat, Dante’s Inferno gives the player the choice over whether to punish or absolve your enemies. The former being the way to the dark side whilst the latter is effectively a stairway to heaven, giving you points which unlock more powerful moves. Ramping up the difficulty only increases the amount of hits it takes to bring down an enemy. Effectively, the various demons begin to feel like super absorbent sponges rather than an actual challenge.


Though rated as an 18, Dante's Inferno feels inherently juvenile. If there is a hell, it is probably being made to play Dante's Inferno for all eternity. There are so many better God of War clones to play now. If the God of War trilogy didn’t satisfy you, there is Wolverine’s Revenge, Force Unleashed and the actually really good Darksiders by Vigil games. I’ve talked too much about this game. Let’s talk about something else...

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction

* SPOILERS AHOY!!!


"Huzzah!!!"



The subtle art of not being seen is one of the hallmarks of the stealth 'em up genre, a genre whose creation is usually accredited to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series. Popularised by the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PSone in the late Nineties, the stealth 'em up offered a different style of gameplay to the 'overkill' mentality that has and continued to characterise a large slab of the gaming market. It required a different approach, a degree of strategy and patience, and rewarded the player with a sense of satisfaction after a successful infiltration. The problem, specifically with the Metal Gear series, was the overbalanced ratio that the player experienced between actually playing the game and watching it through lengthy cut scenes. A year after the release of Metal Gear Solid 2 in 2002, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell offered an alternative experience to the cinematic grandiose of Kojima's series.

Splinter Cell, put you in the sneak boots of Sam Fisher a retired super spy voiced by Michael Ironside who is called back into action for that ‘one last mission’. The stealth mechanics required the player to adopt a predatory approach to espionage, relying on hiding within the shadows and keeping noise to a minimum. Fisher was always armed with his trademark nightvision goggles that effectively turned the player into Buffalo Bill at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Whilst his enemies could not see you, you could see them giving the player an inflated sense of power. There were night vision goggles in Metal Gear, but there were also card board boxes, strategically placed softcore magazines and tranquilizer guns. Splinter Cell gave you a much more linear style of gameplay rooted in high tech gadgetry. Progressing through a mission was often a slow and highly methodical paced experience as you picked off guards one by one, hiding their bodies and tip toeing through the shadows towards your objective. The game proved successful, and a franchise was born on an annual production cycle.

With the release of Double Agent across all platforms including the newly released Xbox360 in 2005 the formula was beginning to feel stale. At least, that is what I thought, I remember sitting down to playing the game and constantly screwing up my stealth approach. I didn't feel like a superspy, I felt like a retard playing as a superspy. Admittedly this was probably the reality of the situation, but the game failed to immerse me to the extent of the first three games. I no longer had the patience for the slow methodical approach of infiltrating levels, evading mouthy guards in a constant crouched position, only to screw it all up because I wasn't hidden behind the wall. Ubisoft obviously were on a similar wavelength, it was time for Splinter Cell to receive a drastic rehaul, to be adapted for the next generation. Afterall, it had worked for Capcom with Resident Evil 4.

Splinter Cell: Conviction has been in production for almost four years. The game has experienced many delays and has gone back to the drawing board on many occasions. Early screenshots released in 2007 revealed a bearded Sam Fisher on the run, a la Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. The gameplay was drastically different to that of the previous titles, involving a more practical approach to stealth a world away from the series’ usage of gadgetry and silenced weapons. Early previews revealed an emphasis on the crowd, Sam would have to blend in with crowds to avoid enemy patrols, when he was spotted and bullets were fired, the crowd would start running for safety, obviously this was an aspect that was incorporated into Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise. Ironically, the finished version of Conviction is not as drastic a change to the series as the game previewed in 2007. However, it is a leaner more fast paced game than feels more highly evolved than its predecessors.

One thing that has not changed is the overall plot, a generic paranoid conspiracy narrative that we have seen in other splinter cell games as well as other thrillers. You once again play as Sam Fisher, a man very much on the edge due to the untimely demise of his daughter that happened in the last game. At the beginning of Conviction, you are informed by a new contact that the circumstances concerning your daughter’s death may be part of a larger conspiracy and so is set in motion a new mission in which Sam is fed tidbits of information from the table as he does the government's dirty work. For all the shortcomings of the plot, the gravity given to Fisher by Michael Ironside really succeeds in humanising the character despite his obvious imperfections as a man with the fitness and flexibility of a twenty year old though the physical appearance of a forty year old man and the voice of a sixty year old man, Sam Fisher is at least a genuine character who is worth rooting for unlike that annoying prick you play as in Just Cause 2.

However, the real strength of Conviction undoubtedly lies within its execution, both in the plot and the gameplay. Whilst Uncharted 2 was essentially an interactive action comedy experience in the vein of Indiana Jones, the latest Splinter Cell serves up an interactive version of a slick 24/Bourne esque thriller. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 4, essentially five levels padded out with hours of cut scenes; Conviction succeeds in completely immersing the player within the story as it happens, rarely taking the level of interactivity from out of the player's hands. There is no checking your PDA for your latest mission objectives; instead they are boldly displayed within the game world. Rather than deviating from the flow of the narrative, flashback sequences are projected through grainy filters onto the walls of corridors. The game’s plot is developed through a wealth of interrogation scenes, where you are forced to retrieve information from an unsavoury character through lashings of the old ultra violence. These scenes are characteristically brutal and also humorous in that they involve little to the imagination. Controlling Fisher, you hold the bad guy by the throat and will be confined to move around a small area with several objects that you can interact with. When you see a big plasma screen you know it is just waiting to be busted in by some goon's head. All these little changes keep the narrative of the game extremely streamlined and focused within the pacing of the game itself. The player is always moving forward with a clear mind with what he or she has to do next.

This dynamic pacing extends into the gameplay as well. Conviction embraces current trends in gaming, such as cover based combat and close range one button knockouts. Whilst previous Splinter Cells relied on a methodical approach to stealth, Conviction has mostly sacrificed that for a more bombastic approach that thrives on how quickly you clear an area of bad guys. Though you will still very much be moving around in a crouched position, seeking the protection of darkness and cover; dispatching guards is fast, efficient and brutal, the silenced pistol essentially becoming an extension of Sam’s fists. More than ever you realise just how much a badass Sam Fisher really is. Heads and lights can be easily taken out safely from cover, there is no delay between pulling the trigger and popping out of cover to aim, like in Gears of War for example. You just point the crosshair in the right direction and Sam just makes the shot, it is all so efficient and easy. Added to this new found slickness in combat is the mark and execute mechanic. This takes the mechanic as seen in the Rainbow Six Vegas games, where you will prioritise targets for your team mates to kill by marking them with a touch of the back button. By despatching a guard in close combat you gain the ability to execute, by pressing the y-button you dispose of each of the targets with a perfect head shot. On paper, this may make the game sound easier or at least take away the satisfaction of performing a perfect head shot with manual aiming. Not so. Each weapon has a set amount of marks. I preferred the five-seven pistol, which gives you four marks. I remember there was one room with about five guards, I marked the four guards furthest away from me and walked into plain sight to take down the fifth guard in close combat. This alerted the guards but I had earned my ability to execute, and so with a four presses of the y-button I cleared the entire room in a manner of seconds. Incredibly satisfying.

There will be times when you get spotted of course. Times like these usually see you going loud. As well as his pistol, Sam will be armed with a main weapon, a shotgun or an assault rifle for example. But these prolonged firefights are ill advised. It does not take very many bullets to kill Sam and quite often when faced with these situations you are dead. It really forces the player to adopt the stealth panther approach. Should you be spotted you can use various grenades you pick up to make a speedy get away. Though heaven forbid you confuse the throw grenade button with the reload button and unleash an EMP pulse before you plan your attack, which literally harbours all the subtlety of the world’s most malevolent fart. Yes children, to reload you click in the left analogue stick not the ‘x’ button. Though I imagine you can probably change that in the controller layout.

My main discrepancies with the game do not seriously hinder the gaming experience overall. Upon entering a new location you begin to plan your attack in a manner that evokes early Metal Gear Solid, where each area is a puzzle. This illusion is spoiled when you realise that there is a climbable pipe in the corner and maybe a precariously positioned piece of scenery that screams to be brought crashing to the ground by a single bullet as it hangs dangerously above a group of guards all met in the same place, probably discussing whether or not they liked the ending of Lost. On the subject of your adversaries, the AI of the enemies feels stuck in the past. They will notice dead bodies, shine torches in the absence of light, sometimes act startled to the sound of disturbance, and sometimes they’ll even get the better of you. Most of the time however they effectively serve as walking talking headshot receptacles. They also talk a lot, in fact they will not stop talking. They talk in the familiar unsympathetic tones of the overtly masculine jock strap who seeks only to further his own masculinity by killing you. Obviously, we aren’t supposed to be rooting for these guys and taking them down is made all the more satisfying when Sam figuratively castrates them with one of his brutal finishing moves. But still, it begs the question, just where did the government get these bunch of cretins from? Why can’t they stay silent when they know a super spy is coming their way? What happened to all that military sign language? Wouldn’t silence give them at least an air of menace?
Eventually, the game pits you against various goggle wearing peeps who effectively serve as visions of a younger Sam Fisher that appeared in previous games. Yet they just can’t do subtle. Mostly these guys announce their arrival in the noisiest way possible either by smashing through glass or using smoke grenades and flashbangs. The guards from Metal Gear never did this. They didn’t talk, they just had the red exclamation mark when they saw you, maybe a deep seated suspicion of boxes. At least the bloody FROG guards from MGS4 attempted to create an illusion of fear through their tortured screaming. When training up Fisher, Third Echelon seemed to have got it right. He remains silent in the act of killing, or at least charmingly suave as he gets an enemy by a chokehold.

Then there is the plot. There are memorable moments, such as the section proceeding a key revelatory scene in which Sam becomes aware of what has actually been going on, breaking out of Third Echelon in the vivid colours of an adrenaline induced burst of rage. Another is a particularly inspired chase scene at the Washington Monument. There are points when the game’s narrative doesn’t work so well. For instance, the game includes a fairly uninspired Iraqi flashback that essentially plays like a poor man’s ghost recon. Which I guess is no big thing, its not like these two franchises are linked to one another in any particular way...
Then we come to the whole dilemma surrounding Sam’s dead daughter. At the beginning of the game, we are reintroduced to the game’s emphasis on darkness through a flashback between a younger Fisher and his daughter, as he teaches his young daughter not to fear the dark. I thought the game would have more of these scenes, strengthening Sam’s relationship with his daughter over time, in a similar way to the original God of War, which gradually revealed the tragic history of Kratos the further you ventured through the game. But I guess that would have only worked up to a point, namely the point when you find that Sam’s daughter, the one you thought dead, isn’t actually dead at all. It feels like a cheapened resolution, I signed up to this game, thinking we were getting a vengeful fuelled version of Sam Fisher, a man on the edge with nothing to lose, a loose canon firing on anybody stupid enough to cross him. This was the ideology that Double Agent was based on, and the plot was the only thing which that game had going for itself. But hey, for fulfilling the fantasy of being a super spy, you’re not really playing the game for the story.

Aside from the main campaign, there is also the co-op multiplayer which serves as a prequel to the events of the single player. Splinter Cell has always managed to do multiplayer well. First introduced in the second game Pandora’s Tomorrow was the spies versus merc mode, which had two players tasked with infiltrating a base whilst the other two defended the objective. The spies played from the conventional third person view, possessing all the acrobatic abilities of Fisher whilst the mercs were limited to a first person perspective. It was a completely original take on multiplayer. Since Co-op seems to be all the rage at the moment, I am pleased to report that the developers have put as much time into crafting the multiplayer as they have with the single player. Resident Evil 5 should take note. For all the changes made to the Splinter Cell formula it all works incredibly well in co-op, in fact I’d go to say that the multiplayer attachment is worth the full price of the game alone, far more enjoyable as the single player. You and a friend assume the roles of Archer and Kestrel, an unlikely partnership between the US and Russia who are tasked with tracking down a couple of EMPs that have annoyingly gone walkabout. My experience was a bit like the odd couple, I was the cold calculating one carefully taking out guards silently whilst my friend preferred to kick down all doors and go in all guns blazing with a boomstick. Despite my organised approach, I would always risk my own neck when I was inevitably tasked with reviving with my magic defibrillators of curing. Messing about aside, there comes the time following several failed attempts when both of you knuckle down and decide to take the level down as a team, and when this happen the game soars. Aside from the co-op story, the game ensures replayability by various different game modes from a Gears of War styled horde mode and a conventional deathmatch mode.

In conclusion, Splinter Cell: Conviction is an excellent rejuvenation of the series. Some die- hard fans may mournfully recall the old times which allowed for a more organised approach, but for me personally I think the changes to the game revitalise the series and the genre as a hole. In the wake of Metal Gear Solid 4 especially, the fifth Splinter Cell game provides a far more linear approach to the stealth ‘em up genre that rarely sacrifices time spent playing the game against watching the plot unfold. As much as I love the Metal Gear Solid series, Conviction is more efficient as an interactive experience. Given the choice between watching the latest thriller at the cinema or playing Conviction alone or with a friend, I know exactly which experience I would choose.
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