Monthly Archives: April 2011

Of Buoyancy

Word to your progenitors, earth-kids. Just firing a fast one from the hip (or a quick one at the wrist?) to tell yous to have a gander at the Eurogamer homepage today. Why? Well you should be looking at it anyway you tykes. But specifically, because I’ve won their Reader Review of the Month competition again.

The review in question is of Digger-Simulator 2011, that veritable jewel of a game, about which the nicest thing I can probably say is that it’s essentially installable.

In the review I also say things not dissimilar to:

Video games have potential for reigniting that deep focus we experience as children, that immediacy and clarity born of living in a new world where endeavours are begun for their own sake, not out of a desire for some perceived external goal. Watching ants crawl across a scorching summer pavement, say, or building a dam over a stream, knowing it will be washed away when next you return.

Go have a nosey, or you can read the full piece, complete with sumptuous horticulturally-themed screenshot, further down the main page of this very blog.

Ellie Gibson, deputy editor of Eurogamer, said some Nice Things about the review, which is surprising because normally she only says Mean Yet Hilarious Things, usually about some horrendous Wii based lifestyle game or other.

So yes, all very superb. I’ve been feeling a bit self-conscious and glum about my writing of late (I always feel self-conscious and glum about something, to be fair), which makes this precisely the shot in the arm I needed to soldier on with the work, holding close to my heart that fragile and beautiful hope that one day I may be able to live my life without a job.

Fucking jobs, eh! I mean I’m all for hard work, didacticism and enlarging the mind, but as if any real jobs contain even one iota of those qualities anyway. “Hey guys, seeing as we live only once, briefly, in this vast and unknowable dream-cosmos, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s spend three-quarters of our time doing something we utterly hate so that we have the money to allow us to spend the other quarter too drunk to remember it.”

Yeah, nice one. Which reminds me — you should go read Bob Black’s seminal essay The Abolition of Work (unless you have a job to go to tomorrow, because it might depress you into suicide), and also watch Chris Rock’s impassioned routine about the difference between jobs and careers. Oh yes indeed.

In conclusion, then: Ellie Gibson is amazing and lovely, as long as you’re not the developer of a Wii based lifestyle game (in which case in all seriousness go fucking die), Chris Rock and Bob Black are both very talented, and let’s all quit our jobs and go live in the trees.

For real. We could train squirrels to bring us berries and ice cream, get badgers to put on burlesque shows for us in the evenings, build Swiss Family Robinson style treehouses, and take loads of acid and remember how to love.

Come on. I may be a dreamer, but I bet I’m not the only one.

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Crysis 2: A Review

“Never assume,” the Buddha once said, “it makes an ass out of you and me.”

Well alright, he probably didn’t phrase it in quite those terms, and especially not in English — but it’s good advice regardless, and something fans of the original Crysis would do well to be mindful of when approaching this sequel.

Developers Crytek have altered their priorities, you see. Gone are the lush jungle expanses of the first game and its spiritual predecessor Far Cry, replaced with the tight urban trenches of a New York under attack from alien invaders.

And gone too is Crytek’s quixotic quest for graphical and physical fidelity far ahead of the curve, resulting in games only playable on the highest spec quantum-cooled 1.21 gigawatt machines of the future. Crysis 2 is designed with the ageing consoles in mind, its PC port the superior version but certainly not a tech demo to test upcoming graphics cards against.

The kids, as usual, aren’t happy. Being able to display the first Crysis on max settings was a badge of honour, undisputed proof that the PC could handle games the PS3 and 360 could only dream of.

So Crytek’s change of approach has been interpreted by the PC elite as a betrayal, a sacrificing of scope and individuality in the chase for that elusive Yankee Dollar.

Well to hell with that. Stop concentrating on what you assume Crysis 2 should be, and accept it for what it actually is, and you’ll find a superb game in there.

It is more linear than its forefathers, for sure, but also slicker, more accessible. It’s a roller coaster rather than sandbox, now — offering an intense ride that catapults you around the besieged New York as sky scrapers collapse, helicopters explode and alien structures burst forth from beneath the concrete.

The high-octane spectacle is an obvious strategy to appeal to the mainstream console market, but it is no less affecting for it. For gut excitement it rivals Call of Duty and its ilk, and in fact beneath the whizz-bang exterior lies a game far more intelligent and complex than those cleverly disguised shooting galleries.

The core concept is largely unchanged from the first Crysis. You play Alcatraz, a mute marine ensconced within the Nanosuit — a state-of-the-art combat suit bestowing the user with super-human abilities. The suit can be switched between three primary modes: strength, allowing you to leap buildings and punch people really hard in the face; armour, absorbing bullets and cushioning the shock from explosions and falls; and stealth, turning you near-invisible, letting you sneak past enemies and escape detection.

Whereas transitioning between suit modes in the previous game required accessing a wheel menu, Crysis 2 maps functionality to the Q and E keys (or bumper buttons), immediately increasing your flexibility in the heat of battle. The streamlining is an obvious yet major improvement, resulting in a more instinctive play style that allows you to react to each situation as it occurs.

There’s still room for proactive forward planning, but there is now less fear of making a mistake in your approach and your suit not reacting in time to get you out of trouble. With no lag between making a decision and implementing it through the controls, it’s easier to barrel through situations forming ad hoc plans as you go. Executing a strategy is still enjoyable, but possessing that extra level of manipulation over your suit makes firefights creative and rewarding affairs.

The AI is also more forgiving this time round, presumably for similar reasons. It’s always possible to cloak up and sprint away from confrontations, enemies on higher alert after spotting you but certainly not following you doggedly. Die hard fans of the first game might bemoan the step back in realism, but I found the extra leniency satisfying.

Which is not to say the Nanosuit is invulnerable. It is folly, at least on higher difficulty settings, to take on groups of enemies head on. Using suit powers drains energy, represented with a meter on the HUD. Energy recharges, but only with powers switched off, and once the meter depletes entirely you’ll go down in a couple of hits.

In practice this means the suit is best used for hit and run attacks. My original conception of Crysis was that the suit modes would make for a Deus Ex clone, albeit less cerebral, allowing you to choose to approach situations as either a walking tank, a raging Incredible Hulk or a stealthy rogue.

The game is at its best though, its most fluid, when utilising all modes in tandem. Less the Hulk, a more apt superhero analogy is probably to Batman — a deadly assassin striking unexpectedly, taking down with lightning efficiency then slipping back into the shadows.

You cloak up and creep through an area, finding a couple of guards separated from the pack. Sneaking behind one you snap his neck, coming out of cloak to blast the other with your rifle. But three more are alerted to the disturbance — you activate shields as the bullets come whining in. You charge at the group, grabbing one by the throat and tossing him across the street. Pistol shots take down the other two. But there are guards everywhere now, and you’re running out of energy. With a last spurt you leap to a nearby rooftop and duck behind cover. After a quick recharge you cloak up again and drop down silently on the other side of the building, slinking off to plan your next attack …

Of course it’s possible to knock down the difficulty and gun your way through, or stealth past the majority of encounters, but you won’t have nearly as much fun.

The game’s visuals, while they won’t be stretching hardware for years to come, are still hugely impressive. Morning sun starches the sidewalks and shimmers off windows, glowing embers float in the dusk, the sky is alive with birds and smoke and the dissolving ephemera of recently fought battles.

Lighting is more subtle, more believable than in the first game, and objects have a solidity they didn’t before possess. True, look carefully and you can see where concessions have been made to squeeze the game onto consoles: details that may previously have been modelled — discarded clothes, ammo, newspapers — are now drawn onto textures, reflections in the omnipresent glass buildings are a cheated approximation and levels, while still containing open areas, are more constrained than the wooded valleys of the original Crysis.

The general impression, however, is strong. With or without DX11 support, this is a sumptuous looking game, the art direction Crytek’s strongest to date.

I am less inclined, though, to defend the game’s narrative. It is not appalling, and manages to maintain a sense of pace and excitement, but away from the disaster-movie bombast its more human elements fall predictably flat. Characters are generally ill-defined, opposing factions do not have clear enough goals, and the attempts at sense of place — “The End is Nigh” style graffiti, virus-infected citizens huddled in quarantine zones — are too clich├ęd to take seriously. It is as if the writers have played Half Life 2 and BioShock, shot for a similar style, but not understood what it was that made the elements in those games work so well.

One aspect of the narrative that succeeds unequivocably, however, is the characterisation of the Nanosuit itself. While you know next to nothing — and don’t care to know — about Alcatraz, the Nanosuit is a hardy, likeable personality. It never shuts up, for one, yelling out MAXIMUM ARMOUR or STEALTH MODE ENGAGED at you with cheery abandon. But more than that, it is a dynamic, active, evolving presence, a friend to get you through the toughest of scrapes.

In an inspired design choice, the suit is constantly getting chewed up and bashed around by some scripted story event, always finding a way to cope with the trauma. When a chemical weapon infects the air, you fall to the floor as the suit tries to isolate and absorb the bio-toxins, the only control left to you a button press to activate the in-built defibrillator to restart your heart. When massive damage takes the suit offline, you follow key-prompts to crawl resolutely onwards, hand over hand, as the suit runs desperate internal protocols to restore functionality.

These moments of vulnerability work in part to throw your usual enhanced acrobatics into contrast, but they also do a great job of grounding you within the suit. Just as the plot sees Alcatraz and the Nanosuit merging into one being, so too do you feel a bizarre bond forming with the high-tech armour. You become reliant on it, transforming it into an AI team-mate constantly hoisting you towards greatness. That Crytek have conjured this sensation from nothing is deserving of praise.

Running concurrent with the campaign mode, Crysis 2 also contains the usual wealth of online multiplayer options. In keeping with the overarching style, this is a game taking its cues from Call of Duty — with weapon unlocks, leveling-up and preset classes, and all the pros and cons that go with such a system. Matches are fast paced and frantic, suit functions tweaked slightly but remaining similar to the single player. Levels are well designed, with the super-jump, sprint and cloaking abilities providing a fresh way to traverse terrain. The usual caveats apply — this is a competitive shark pool and newcomers are likely to be disheartened by the regularity they’re outgunned and outclassed by higher level players with better weapons — but overall the multiplayer is a solid experience that should extend the game’s lifespan considerably.

Crysis 2 is a muscular, frenetic beast of a game. Its tighter structure may rule out some of the potential for emergent glory that Crytek’s earlier titles offered, but blow-for-blow this is the better product. Does it set the bar for the next generation of videogame graphics? No. Has it aligned itself with the beefy jock-shooters vying for market dominance on the consoles? Definitely. But why assume either of those are such bad things? Take a leaf from the Buddha’s book and judge the game on its own merits — you may be surprised with what you find.

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