Category Archives: Reviews

One Toke Over the Line: How I Passed Through Skyrim and Lived to Tell the Tale

Cannabis is a drug that feeds off misery and elation with indiscriminate zeal. It cares not whether it carries you to Elysian fields or infernal caverns of the soul, so long as it carries you somewhere.

As the more perspicacious among you will no doubt be aware, I have not published a blog post since September. With the months preceding this drought filled with links to my blog from larger websites, words of praise and encouragement from my journalistic idols, emails of thanks from an increased readership, you would be forgiven for assuming I’ve simply been busy working on exciting projects for outlets other than this one.

But you would be wrong. I have spent much of the last four months in a private hell, struggling to find reason for leaving my bed. I have frequently slept until four in the afternoon. I have subsisted on take-aways and supermarket pizzas. I have written sporadically, and been filled with revulsion at the words produced. Evenings have been killed watching Channel Five documentaries about truckers, and drinking wine until the world has gone glassy and underwater, the edges have softened, and life has become blurry enough to deal with.

The days I have spent smoking weed. I am liberal and inquisitive, fascinated by the nature of being and the self-discovery afforded by explorations to the antipodes of the mind (to borrow Huxley’s phrase) — clearly I have always smoked weed. But this drug that was once a companion leading me on cheery Zen-like wanderings, gradually became instead a partner in crime — an all too-willing-accomplice entering with me into a pact of mutual-immolation. We slashed palms, mingled blood, then I incinerated the weed and the weed incinerated me, until I was no more than an automaton, shuffling on because I had always shuffled on.

So, inexorably, in a daze of habitual spliff-smoking, the winter months churned by. Then, halfway through my convalescence, I discovered a new element to add to my languorous routine — a discovery that would eventually lead to the writing of this article. One cold day in November I walked into town and bought a newly-released videogame by the name of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim


The Elder Scrolls is a series of fantasy roleplaying games, its roots sprouting from that mist-enshrouded quagmire known as the 80s PC gaming scene. If you have a friend with a D&D rulebook and sets of Lego Star Wars figurines displayed prominently in his bedroom, he’ll tell you all about the early Elder Scrolls games — how the first two struggled to find their identity, that third game Morrowind was the series’ high point. But for the rest of the world (or at least the subset of it that owns Xbox 360s), it was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that brought the franchise into public consciousness.

Oblivion was sublime, and sublimely flawed. At turns gargantuan, restrictive, overwhelming, bloated, intricate and bland, it was an open-world sandbox experience offering seemingly-boundless vistas and ornate medieval towns to explore, filled with some of the most tedious quests and generic, clichéd characters imaginable.

I appreciated Oblivion, but could never fully give myself to it. There was too much else on my plate. The effort it required to burrow beneath the high fantasy drivel, to the freeform mechanical richness in its crust, was more than I could muster.

And then, five years later, arriving to expectations as high as for any RPG before, came Skyrim. And this time, I had countless hours of dead time that needed eating up. This time I’d cast off or lost all other commitments and responsibilities. This time I was stoned. This time I was ready.

Skyrim is, first and foremost, sumptuous. Set among the pine forests and snow-capped peaks of the Elder Scroll‘s far north, it is filled with vicariously-experienced waterfalls you can almost believe are wetting your face, snow-drifts that cause you to shiver and stamp your feet in solidarity with your hardy avatar.

Exiting its tutorial dungeon — an opening-section, it must be said, remarkably belligerent in its desire to emphasise none of the game’s strengths — you emerge into a crisp, undisturbed forest, the thrill of discovery hanging palpably in the air. You can wind your way down to the nearest village and continue the “main story” (I use this phrase out of convention, though within Skyrim the linear progression of the central quest-line is far from its raison d’etre); you can stalk off into the woods to hunt bears and fall off cliffs and get attacked by giant crabs; you can pick any point on the map — say the furthest city from you — and try to get there; or you can simply amble to and fro, picking flowers, watching sunlight dapple through trees, listening to water bubble along a distant brook.

The sense of freedom is intoxicating. My first ten or so hours were spent roaming the countryside wide-eyed — creeping through caves, my body stiff with dread and foreboding — pinballing between buildings in the town I regularly returned to, trying to remember which one belonged to the blacksmith I needed. This was another world, devoid of the self-loathing and anxiety that coloured my own, and I wanted not just to visit it, but to relocate there.

Gradually, however, a creeping dissatisfaction arose in me. Clouds of frustration began to darken the game’s blue skies. For, slowly, disorganised rambling gives way to routine, and you realise Skyrim‘s world is not as wild or spontaneous as first appears. The dungeons — be they spider-infested grotto, underground dwarvern city or drauger crypt — all follow the same template, with one route looping back on itself, a combination of light and medium enemies, culminating in a boss battle, and finally a chest containing appropriate recompense. Likewise, after a few encounters with the dragons so central to the game’s marketing, their defeat becomes rote, as you watch them circle, land and attack the way they always do. Villagers, you soon realise, play out their lives and spout their pre-programmed dialogue with a mechanical deadness.

This is not really another world, with all its myriad, breathtaking permutations, but a rudimentary simulacrum of one. It is a system not chaotic but neatly ordered — and it isn’t long before you map out this order, and so gain dominion over the system.

Of course, all videogames are simulacra. You can’t reason with the enemy soldiers of Call of Duty, they can’t write letters home, or desert the battlefield to buy a small farm and live out their days with a newfound respect for life. But as players we accept this simplified model because the systems it does simulate are well-implemented, don’t have to be constrained by the laws of our own world, and allow a space to experiment, to play. War-games get my adrenalin pumping, force me to make split-second decisions that feel as if my life depends on them … and ultimately contain none of the troublesome ethical-ickiness that sullies real-world conflict.

Call of Duty is a simplification, but it still expertly simulates the thrill of combat. Portal simulates puzzle-solving. GTA simulates being allowed to go flipping mental in a massive city.

Yet, with Skyrim, it’s tricky to identify where the appeal lies. Fighting is adequate but hardly electrifying. The writing is woeful. Puzzles are unfathomable. The “humour” I’ve had to put in quotation marks there to designate as such, because you’d be hard-pressed to notice otherwise.

Rather, I feel, what Skyrim is supposed to engender is the sense of existing as a small cog in a larger world. Yet, for all its environmental and architectural beauty, this world desperately lacks the spark necessary to bring it alive.

Bethesda, developers of Skyrim, have always struck me as a company heavy on engineers and light on artists. This game does little to change my mind. Dialogue is flat. Story is splurged over your face rather than revealed gradually and cunningly. The drama as a whole unfolds with all the verisimilitude of a school play enacted by marionettes, controlled via those robotic arms that weld doors onto assembly-line cars.

It’s tempting to say Bethesda’s approach simply isn’t suited to rendering dramatic tension — put simply, if you let players go where they want, it’s inevitable they’ll be looking the wrong way when the King is murdered and the pivotal argument plays out — but I think this is making excuses. A deftness of touch, a filmmaker’s acumen for visual storytelling, could make all the difference. Let players loose on Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene and they may run off to tea-bag the bushes, but act out some decent Shakespeare and those that care will know where to watch. Timing matters, vocal performance matters, mise-en-scene matters.

Yet for all this, Skyrim is an addictive piece of work. I played for over forty hours. My housemate — who has no nagging sense of writing he’s failing to complete — has clocked up hundreds of hours so far with the game. If so many of its systems are so dissatisfactory, what is its draw?

Worryingly, I believe a large part of it comes down to that oldest of RPG tricks: a web of abstract numbers shrewdly misappropriated to stand as a gauge for your sense of self. Or, to put it in terms relatable within the parlance of our field, it comes down to levelling-up.

Start a player in a world and tell them they are represented by a label that reads “Level 1”. Let them click buttons for a while, then — accompanied by a euphonious little jingle — tell them they’ve ascended to Level 2. That gaping chasm in the centre of their hearts will momentarily fill up, the aching of their lives will fade into the background, and they will become what, in their injured and consumerism-warped brains, they have learned to identify as “happy”. Pretty soon, of course, they’ll start to feel miserable again. Except now they’re aware Level 3 is just round the corner, then Levels 4, 5 and 6. No matter how monotonous the actual activities, how lacking in intrinsic merit, you’ll have them hooked.

In its worst moments, Skyrim can feel like little more than a framing mechanism for this kind of insidious player-manipulation, a grandiose, blockbuster version of the insipid social games Ian Bogost so successfully satirised with his Facebook application Cow Clicker. For a long time I wasn’t playing Skyrim because I enjoyed it, but because playing Skyrim had become what I did.


On the train down to visit my family this Christmas, watching out of the window as geese flew in the clear air, and the red in the sky dissolved into the horizon, I decided to stop smoking weed. That was a month ago. So far, so good.

Cannabis is, I shouldn’t need to point out, a plant. And plants are — to the best of my knowledge — morally-neutral beings. Weed isn’t a great evil thrust upon the world, nor is it a saviour to heal all our ills. It’s just an aspect of life, and, like everything else, it can be used or abused. It can enliven creativity, help you wind down after a rough day, or it can ruin your life.

I don’t hate weed. My relationship with it will no doubt grow and mature, ebb and flow, as I sail down the tributaries and rivers of life, back towards the great ocean at the centre of all things. But, for the moment, it is taking me only into dead-end pools and swampy marshes, and it is time to let it go.

And Skyrim? It is not a game devoid of enjoyment, or of beauty. Much pleasure can be gained from getting lost in its voluminous world, from exploring this way and that, fighting giants, riding horses, catching butterflies — losing track of time and realising another evening has passed in the company of insane gods, wooly mammoths and blood dragons.

Nevertheless, I don’t feel I can recommend it any more than I can recommend smoking weed. Initially I plunged into Skyrim with an insatiable appetite, but, as the days passed, I began to feel my time with it was becoming less and less enriching. Maybe your experience will be different. It has many problems — an arrogant disregard for the importance of skillful storytelling, a deep-routed belief that the destination is more significant than the journey — but it is still a fascinating and curious beast, an influential landmark on the vista of gaming. I am confident that I will continue to visit it for years to come.



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Dissecting Corpses; the World Behind the World: A Review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

It’s eight in the morning, or thereabouts, which any self-respecting writer will tell you is a rotten, despicable, ungodly time to be awake.

I’m up because I’ve got Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I want to play it before I go to work. I am a lazy, sleepy man; videogames do not usually make me do this.

I’m in the first city-hub and I’ve talked my way into a police station, to find evidence in the morgue. I need the evidence because … a girl was killed … and everyone says she must have been caught in the propeller of a speedboat, but I know it was really a great white shark, secretly terrorising our beachfront community … and soon I’ll have to ram a gas canister into its mouth and shoot it from the mast of my sinking boat.

No, that’s Jaws, isn’t it? Okay, I’ve already forgotten why I’m finding evidence in the morgue. Human Revolution does not tell a good story. You wouldn’t want to watch it on film. But videogames aren’t films, and what Human Revolution does, elegantly, is let you live a good story.

I’ve gone in the front of the police station. I could have jumped a fence into the alley next to the station and climbed the fire escape ladder and snuck in, except I didn’t take the jumping augmentation, so that was out. I could have navigated the sewers, shot or snuck past some thugs, then hacked the basement door into the station, deactivating the alarm systems on the way. Except my hacking skill is low, and besides, I hate the sewers, so screw that. I could have just unholstered my upgraded combat rifle and shot my way in, but that seemed a little gauche for a man of my unfettered sophistication.

So I talked my way in. The officer on the front desk was an old buddy, racked with guilt over a case that went sour and led to a kid getting killed, and with my knack for canny dialogue choices, combined with a little pheromone augmentation, I was able to alleviate his grief and persuade him to let me through.

Now I’m crawling through air vents into the first floor offices and hacking into computers and reading everyone’s emails. I’m a sneaky, seductive snooper. I’m ace!

So ace, in fact, that I forget about that whole “outside world” thing, and end up late for work, and receive the Disapproving Look from my boss. I know the Disapproving Look well — sometimes I feel it is my only friend — but, again, it is a long time since its cause was a videogame.

My mammoth bar shift sludges by in a slow-motion blur of scraped plates, squawking customers and abject sadness. Then I come home and turn Human Revolution back on. I eat in front of the screen and play past an indecent hour right round to a decent hour. What I mean is I play until morning. Once again: a game hasn’t made me do this in ages.

Here’s one thing I do in that time: I play a parallel universe.

In the police station I find a room marked “Armory”. It’s off-limits, protected by a guard and a security camera and a locked door. I’m playing as a good guy and the cops are my friends (I’m spying on their emails and stealing credits from their drawers, but hey, that’s what friends are for) … but even so, this armo(u)ry is enticing me.

I quick save in the corridor outside, then go for it. I sidle up against the wall and creep past the camera’s dead zone. I pull out my tranquiliser rifle and take aim at the back of the guard’s head. The camera is facing the corridor, I have a few seconds to take down the guard, rush in and drag his unconscious body out of view, before the camera arcs back round. Then it’s a simple matter of hacking the computer with the code I picked up in one of the offices, and unlocking the armo(u)ry door to get at the riches within.

Except — shit — I miss with my first dart. The guard shouts. I reload, hit, and he’s down. But too late — I’ve stumbled back in panic, right into view of the camera. It turns red, an alarm sounds, and I hear all the cops in the world rushing to my position.

I pile boxes in front of the door to the corridor, dash to the computer, shit, fumble the password … backspace, retype … and I’m in. Camera 1: shutdown. Camera 2: shutdown. Armoury door: open.

Red triangles scuttling across my radar. Cops. Enemies now. Inside the armoury I find some kind of experimental weapon — just time pick it up, equip, load ammo — and the barricade is knocked away and the first wave of cops rushes in.

I swing the weapon’s sights up and fire. A crackling ball of electricity pulses from the barrel, hits the middle cop in the chest. All three men fly backwards, thud into wall, limp bodies fall to floor.

Hell of a thing.

I grab a shotgun from the locker, take ammo from the sprawled bodies. More cops arrive. I charge them, blow one away, blast other right over balcony down into main office. Swap to my combat rifle. Take cover behind balcony and aim down into office. Headshot. Chest-shot. Headshot. Unload rest of clip into guy ducked behind desk. Reload. Barambarambaram. Bullets flying. Health low. Out of ammo. Switch to pulse gun — smash two men across room. One somehow stands back up — I switch to my pistol and take him out.

Falls quiet. I turn — two cops coming up stairs. Blam-blam-blam. More in side offices. Blam-blam. Three from corridor into main office. Blamblamblamblam.

Really quiet now. I creep down and into the main room. Bodies everywhere. Collect ammo.

Then I see the kid. A punk, a thug, just some dude, slumped back in a chair next to a desk. Arrested and halfway through processing? Or an informant, brought in under false pretenses? Or a witness? A victim? Whatever. He’s dead.

I’ve killed him. The cops were red triangles and they were shooting at me so I shot back. How animals work. How videogames work.

But this kid was just sat there, doing whatever, and he got caught in the crossfire and now he’s dead. I’ve killed him.

He didn’t even have time to stand up.

I stay there a long while, looking at him. Then I press Escape and Load and Load Last Quicksave, and I’m back in the corridor to the armoury, and none of the last twenty minutes has happened.

I turn back, let the armoury go, and head downstairs. Cops chatting, laughing, smiling at me. In the main room I walk past the punk in the chair. “You my lawyer? You don’t look like a lawyer,” he says. He’s got attitude, sounds like a dick. But he’s alive.

And yet … I can still see him, slumped, lifeless. And I get this weird sensation, as if that parallel existence is still going on somewhere. Shudder down my spine. I feel, momentarily — and it’s gone before it even registers — like I’ve just touched some great truth, been close to the movement of the universe, seen the hidden world that exists behind our world.

And I think that’s pretty cool — that a game can do that. I really do.


I’ve been struggling with the concept of reviews recently. I hate reviews, they bore the utter hell out of me. It’s not the fault of the writers — many of whom humble me with their talent. It’s the form itself — the idea that a good review must list all features of a game, appraise the implementation, give a mark out of ten.

Writers shouldn’t list. Writers should use combinations of scratches on a page, or a screen, to uncover truth that alludes the common eye. As simple, and as gloriously unattainable, as that.

Here’s why reviews bore me, why I never read to the end of them, why this thing deep inside me flares with anger at them: videogames are alive; reviews assume them to be dead.

A microwave oven is dead. It is a utensil, a functional object designed to make our lives easier. Videogames — and movies and books and paintings and songs — have never been about making life easier. They are the very reason we live.

Games are raw, fleshy things, brought to life when they are played. Not corpses to be dissected on cold slabs.

I could tell you about Human Revolution’s inventory system. I could bullet-point the transhumanist plot, give you the lowdown on protagonist Adam Jensen, comment on how the game is set in Blade Runner, but not as good.

I don’t feel the need to do any of that though. You’ll figure that out if you play the game, and explaining it all first lessens the mystery, cheapens our medium, sends out the message that games aren’t magical pieces of art, but fucking toasters or something.

(Incidentally, neither will I refer to Human Revolution as DXHR, like the rest of the gaming press does. That type of shorthand is so esoteric and inscrutable, so off-putting to outside audiences. CoD, GoW, BFBC2 — writers are supposed to love words, not codes.)

Anyway. Here’s what I want to tell you about Human Revolution:

It is a sequel — but from an entirely different team — to one of the most highly regarded PC games of all time. The original Deus Ex had that Velvet Underground thing going on — little mainstream appeal, but influential to people who really knew games. Its freeform structure, emphasising player choice (short version: kill people or talk to them or sneak past), inspired many of the game designers working today. The entire industry, in fact, is still learning from the innovations Deus Ex (along with bedfellows Thief and System Shock) made over a decade ago.

Human Revolution isn’t as fresh or as exciting as the first Deus Ex, but it’s more polished, more approachable. As a Guns & Conversation game I prefer it to Fallout 3 and Mass Effect. As a role-playing game I believe in my role more than in The Witcher 2 or Dragon Age.

And that polish — I think that matters. Critics often lament that videogame architects rarely use their medium to design towering monuments to the human spirit. Where are our Angkor Wats? Our Hagia Sophias? Our Parthenons?

Except I’d argue we have more prosaic worries for the moment. The Taj Mahal can wait — right now we’re struggling to even get buildings with windows at the right height to see out of, with doors that don’t scrape across skirting boards, with walls sufficiently insulated. We’re still, to be honest, wrestling with what a building is, and what it should do.

Human Revolution makes strides in the right direction. There are occasional missteps — the equivalent of the odd plug socket placed awkwardly, say — but by and large this is a confident construction, enjoyable to move through, entertaining to live with.

It may not thrust its delicate minuets as far into the sky as the original Deus Ex did, its buttresses may be less ornate — but at the subterranean level, the foundations are pleasingly solid.


As for my role in recommending the purchase … I’m not convinced that should be my role at all. There is no objectivity. I don’t know you, or your tastes. Maybe you hate games that give you freedom and ask you to take responsibility for your actions. Maybe a plane will drop out of the sky and squash you on your way to the game shop, and I’ll have caused your death. Maybe you live underwater and have no thumbs.

Who knows? What I do know is that I’ve been feeling shit recently, deep down glum, drowning in self loathing — probably because I lie awake half the night worrying about dumb things like whether the game review is a valid form of expression — and in the depths of my despair Human Revolution has been a life raft to carry me through.

I’ve lost myself in it, forgotten my woes and really enjoyed sneaking and talking and shooting and exploring. For all the highfalutin intellectual discourse within the gaming press, it’s this that I play games for. I want to lose myself. I want to stop worrying about life and just live life — even if it’s the simulated life of a biomechanically-augmented security specialist embroiled in a globe-spanning conspiracy.

I can’t speak for any of you, I wouldn’t want to be that presumptuous — but for me, just for me, at this moment in time, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is my game of the year.

I reckon you should play it.


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Pilotwings Resort: A Review

Green tea is good. It’s not the flashiest of drinks, nor the most exciting — when I first tried it I thought it tasted predominantly of soil — but gradually I’ve come to appreciate its soothing charms. In today’s cluttered, ultra-stimulatory world, I like that I can spend five minutes away from the noise and action, sipping some earthy water, relaxing, letting my breath come naturally and my mind unfurl.

Pilotwings Resort, for the 3DS, gives me a similar feeling. It’s a small, quiet game, and has recently taken hold of my heart, in a low-key kind of way.

It’s just lovely. It’s lovely because of its free-flight mode, which lets you putter about its island setting in a plane, a hang glider or a rocket belt (plus more that you unlock), taking in the sights and collecting little fancies. You get to pop balloons, and popping balloons rewards you with more flight time, so you can pop even more balloons.

And there are location markers to collect, and flying through each one tells you a little story — not a narrative, exactly, but some words to flesh out the character of the island. There’s a dead-end halfway up the mountain that you’re told is the point hikers have to decide whether to start climbing or turn back. Or a lighthouse that was built mistakenly at twice its intended size. Or a car in the wilderness with a flat battery (“Will they make it home before dark?”). The asides are breezy and cute, and come together to create a tone that puts me in mind of Miyazaki’s equally calming film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Pilotwings is lovely for the contrast of its vehicles, which is perfectly judged. The rocket belt is good for exploring over short distances, because you can hover and land and make little jumps (to poke around castle grounds, or inside the town) but it’s quite slow and runs out of fuel. The plane can fly forever, and lands in water and does barrel rolls (!), but it turns slowly. The hang glider is my favourite of all, because you’re not in a machine but floating on the air, using thermals to gain height, and it’s very relaxing. You get taken by a gust, then swoop at speed down towards the cruise ship docked in the harbour, then pull up at the last minute and soar over fields and windmill farms.

The game is lovely because of the light at sunset, which is golden and peaceful. And because during the day the blue skies stretch endlessly. And at night there are firework displays going off.

And it’s lovely as well because of its challenge mode — how it’s not hard to pass the missions and move on, but you’ll always be compelled to return to try for three stars, to reach that elusive perfect score.

It’s lovely because in the hang glider you’ll be drifting lower and lower, and your speed will be dropping, and there’ll be a thermal away in front of you and you won’t know whether you’ll make it or crash into the sea, and you’ll really want to make it.

It’s lovely because I’ve come home from work at two in the morning, and instead of going to bed I’ve sat up and looked for hidden passages through the mountain (always with a balloon or other collectible inside) until the sun has come in through my window. It’s lovely because Monster Games and Nintendo have put a lot of thought into creating the coastal allure of the island, which is full of varied locations and much larger in content than you initially suspect. The more you explore, the more you find there is to explore, and the world is a rich, inviting one. It’s lovely because of the music, which doesn’t draw attention to itself but is nonetheless delightful. It’s lovely because sometimes out at sea you’ll notice a whale breaking the water’s surface before diving back below.

It’s lovely because playing it is like going on a little adventure.

Pilotwings Resort might not be particularly innovative or exciting — at times it feels atavistic in its reliance on N64-era tropes and conventions — and it’s a lean package in terms of game modes, with no multiplayer at all to speak of — but you know, sometimes that doesn’t matter. I don’t always want to be pushed into the future, bedazzled by some hip new genre mash-up with a punk/grimecore/patchwork aesthetic. Sometimes it’s just nice to take a step back, sip some green tea, and enjoy a videogame that’s solid and enjoyable and gets its basic sense of exploration spot on.

And did I mention? it’s really rather lovely.

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Portal 2: A Review

You know how Bret Easton Ellis got Less Than Zero published when he was 21? His was a new voice, and the novel was a startling, iconoclastic breakthrough, a kick in the teeth for the writing world. It was unexpected, shocking, and earnest as hell.

Well that’s Portal.

The sequel, then, is an established author — a John Updike, say — midway through his career. Less exciting, maybe, but possessing the confidence and experience to craft a sprawling, elaborate work.

The first Portal bowled the industry over by being a puzzle game with a stronger sense of place than most RPGs, by apparently reinventing every convention of videogame storytelling before revealing it had been abiding by the rules all along, and by introducing us to arguably the greatest villain in gaming — the psychotic supercomputer and deadpan comedienne GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). It was short, original, and the funniest game I’d ever played.

Portal 2 does everything equally well. It isn’t the first though, and it isn’t as fresh or as pure as its predecessor. It couldn’t be. Instead, it has to fall back on just being an astounding videogame.

The story picks up years after the events of the first game, though according to one character the intervening period was, conveniently, “a long chunk of time when absolutely nothing happened.” You once again play Chell, unwitting rat trapped within the maze-like testing chambers of Aperture Laboratories, watched over by the omnipresent GLaDOS. The monstrous AI is powered down and ostensibly destroyed as the game begins, though it doesn’t take long for a few circuit breakers to get flipped and the situation to become … advantageous to testing.

Again, you are presented with a series of spatial puzzles, the only tool at your disposal the inimitable portal gun, a device that fires glowing warp holes linking separate spaces. The uses of these portals vary from room to room, though they are always key to solving the puzzles. You travel through them, use them to drop blocks onto switches, redirect laser beams, raise and lower platforms and extend bridges.

There’s still the same feeling of being overwhelmed when you step into a room and behold the myriad variables you’ll have to manipulate, the same cursing under your breath as you come up against dead ends and confusion, the same elation that courses through you as your brain unlocks the puzzle and the solution presents itself.

The world of Aperture Science is still, for a sterile testing facility, one of the most inviting in all of gaming. More so this time around, in fact. In the years since GLaDOS’s apparent demise the labs have crumbled and decayed, vines sprouting through walls, broken glass and debris littering floors, stagnant water pooling in lower areas.

The Source engine may be getting a little long in the tooth, but here it is used to excellent effect. Lighting is dramatic, spaces are large and varied, the art direction eye catching and affecting. Going back to the first game the environments feel dry and claustrophobic in comparison.

Animation, too, is wonderful. Once GLaDOS awakes she sets to work rebuilding the labs around you, robotic arms protruding from walls to sweep litter away, panels reassembling themselves, dilapidated tiling being cast down to make room for new casing.

Aperture Science is alive, its very structure an extension of the artificial queen sitting at its heart. It bends to her will, obeys her commands, throbs and pulses with her digital fury. It’s a great idea, both a continual reminder of GLaDOS’s power, and a method of ensuring the levels feel dynamic and fluid.

And this is only talking of the initial test labs, saying nothing for the later sections where — well, I can’t tell you. It wouldn’t be fair. Portal 2 presents a narrative that should be experienced first-hand, not read about in reviews or on fan Wiki pages.

And what a narrative it is. Perhaps you could call it predictable, and you’ll certainly see the twists coming, but this is because it adheres to all the traditions of classical storytelling. There’s a satisfaction, a sense of meaning, in each narrative beat. In the same way that it somehow “fits” to discover Darth Vader is Luke’s father in Star Wars, when you find out that GLaDOS is really [SOMETHING I WON’T RUIN WITH SPOILERS], there’s a feeling of glimpsing the hidden pattern behind the apparent randomness of the world, a feeling of events making sense. This is the power of stories, and it’s a power that Portal 2 draws on with skill.

As with all great stories, it is the characters who bring the proceedings to life. GLaDOS is again the star, at turns malevolent, beguiling, terrifying and, of course, hilarious (look out for the bit when she slow claps!). Having spent the first game working towards the reveal of her full identity, Valve use the sequel to go back and explain her, justify her, maybe even (almost) humanise her.

And this time round, she’s not alone. GLaDOS’s caustic wit is offset beautifully by Wheatley, a hapless little robotic eye who acts as guide and narrative instigator for the game’s opening sections. Wheatley is voiced by Stephen Merchant, who, riffing off Erik Wolpaw’s tight script, delivers one of the best voice performances yet heard in videogames.

Wheatley’s bumbling, well-intentioned (at least until … no, shh! Shh!) yet calamitous nature makes him the perfect counterpoint to GLaDOS, a companion to add light comedy and relatable fallibility to the clinical laboratory environment. An excellent running joke sees him incapable of hacking any of the facility’s computer systems. “AAAAAA,” he types in as his first attempt to crack a vital password. His next guess: AAAAAC. “Did I do B?” he asks. “Start writing these down!”

There’s nice work, as well, from J.K. Simmons, as Aperture’s founder and CEO Cave Johnson, and those peculiarly conflicted turrets return from the first game, this time providing tragi-comic moments of poignancy as they tumble into incinerators and vapourise in particle fields. It scarcely needs to be said that Ellen McLain, who once again voices both the turrets and GLaDOS, contributes a wonderful performance.

And my gosh, I’ve said nothing yet about the game’s co-op. The robotic avatars Atlas and P-Body are the perfect double-act for co-operative shenanigans, Valve aware that the only thing more enjoyable than solving a puzzle with a friend is pretending to solve a puzzle with a friend, before firing a portal beneath their feet and dropping them into a pit of lava.

The ability to travel through your partner’s portals as well as your own effectively doubles the complexity of puzzles, tests rapidly becoming multi-faceted, dizzying affairs, making you feel either a genius or a worthless moron, depending which of you figured out a solution first. I blazed through the content with a friend in one night, and I’ll remember it as one of the most rewarding evenings of gaming I’ve had.

The puzzles themselves, in both single player and co-op, are elegantly constructed wonders. An initial worry that they’ll be overly similar to those in the first game proves unfounded, a quick reintroduction of core concepts soon making way for sprawling test chambers that are fresh yet familiar. New elements are introduced carefully, merging naturally with the central portal dynamics to add variety without feeling like gimmicks. Light bridges, launch pads, laser cubes and floaty transport funnels require new methods of thinking, but integrate into the wider scheme seamlessly.

And then there are the much publicised gels: globulous, splattering wads of coloured paint, at turns springing you into the air, speeding you up or providing new surfaces to fire portals upon. I feel ambivalent towards the gels. On the one hand, it’s true that the puzzles involving them are more restricted than other tests, solutions generally requiring stumbling upon a preset configuration, rather than emerging from playful experimentation.

Yet above the functionality of the gels, their aesthetic value gives them reason for existing. Flinging splodges of colour through portals and across rooms is entertaining in and of itself, the resultant free-form mess bringing vibrancy to the metallic underground chambers.

And it is this contrast, I think, that lies at the heart of the Portal experience. Both games are, above all, about life — about the tension between the artistic and the scientific, between childlike wonder and calculated reasoning — and about the joy that harmonising the two can bring.

The tension is manifest in GLaDOS, a computer program who becomes a sadistic megalomaniac only when she is made self aware. But this tension is turned to joy through the humour we find in listening to a rogue AI who can be so monstrous precisely because she is so human.

Likewise, the disparity between our assumptions of the capability of computer intelligence, and the reality of Wheatley’s feckless buffoonery, is the root of much comedy. The inept robotic drone is just as lost hacking terminals and forming escape plans as we ourselves would be.

Most of all though, this tension, and ultimate transcendence of tension, is given voice through our very act of playing the game. What is narratively a quest for Chell to break free from her physical imprisonment, for the player becomes an opportunity to utilise the power of the portal gun to instantaneously escape — not from the labs, but within them. The environment becomes not a dull, clinical facility, but a wild and organic playground. Portal is, essentially, a game about play itself.

And Portal 2? It will never surprise as the original did. But Valve are master storytellers, and Portal 2 sees them at the height of their powers. It might not knock the wind out of you, but it is the best game you’ll have played this year. I can’t praise it enough.


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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 clichéd 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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Digger-Simulator 2011: A Review

In 1989 I was Site Overseer for the Stowe Avenue Digging League, Back Garden Sandpit Division. I wielded a fiersome plastic dumptruck in bold blues and reds, a yellow spade and rake combo, and my nimble, enthusiastic four-year-old’s hands.

Oh, the heady exploits of those halcyon days! Towers of sand would rise, sand-civilisations would fall. I would dig to the very centre of the Earth, where a ridged, orange plastic base resided. The wonders and trinkets to be found there! Kit Kat wrappers, chunky two-pence pieces, a dried nugget of cat poo once when I left the sandpit lid off overnight.

I tell of these adventures not to brag, but to justify to you my relevancy as a reviewer of Digger-Simulator 2011. I know digging: the earth is beneath my fingers; soil saturates my blood.

So it is something of a disappointment to find Digger-Simulator does not bring to mind the joys of my clodhopping childhood, but rather replicates the screaming tedium of adult machine-based labour.

The tutorial level is my first indication of this fact. I am dumped into a quarry, empty but for an enormous pile of dirt, a sifting machine, and a number of storage boxes. My task is to drive a wheel loader (a basic digging vehicle, for those with less industry knowledge than I) to the dirt, scoop some up, drive it to the sifting machine, then put the sifted materials into their corresponding storage boxes. This Sisyphean undertaking is repeated ad infinitum, until you either quit out or linear time disintegrates.

And it is not an enjoyable undertaking. Wrestling the wheel loader to the dirt, wrestling your scoop into the dirt, wrestling the dirt back to the sifting machine, takes around sixteen years. At which point you drop the load and miss the machine’s tray, because none of the preset camera angles give you a sufficient view. So you drive back, swearing, and try again. This time you get some dirt in the tray, but nothing happens. More swearing, and a glass of wine, later, you discover at least three trips are needed to fill the tray enough for it to turn on automatically. This produces what can generously be called a “miniscule” amount of fine sand, which is deposited in a flatbed truck. You swap vehicles, and drive the truck literally ten yards to the storage box — except the truck catches on the geometry of the box, and freezes. So you swap back to the wheel loader and try to move the sand that way — except the wheel loader gets stuck on the geometry of the truck, and also freezes. Everything is now frozen.

At this point you swap your wine for gin.

The game doesn’t improve. By the third mission, set in a suburban garden, I’m so bored I start roleplaying. I am Gaz, a young workman not long off his apprenticeship, struggling to make rent on the flat he shares with his layabout mate Kurt. I’ve got this job digging a trench through the garden of some snooty middle-aged housewife. The pay is good, but I’m secretly depressed. I have this feeling of existence pressing in on me from all sides, this idea that I’m trudging inexorably towards my own death, doing nothing with my life but maintaining.

Oh well, I’ll dump this dirt into the geraniums, nip off for a cig, then maybe meet Kurt for a cheeky pint of Stella before the posh bird comes home from her samba lessons. If I ever get my digger unstuck from this fucking hedge, that is….

The actual digging in Digger-Simulator is a convoluted process, but passable enough. A tap of the spacebar toggles between driving controls and crane hydraulics, mapped to WASD and the arrow keys. Completing missions involves adding or removing dirt from a predetermined area until it reaches the required level. You putter your vehicle to the dig zone, engage hydraulics, claw up all the dirt within reach, then putter along a little further and repeat the process.

Bulldozers and cement mixers add some variation, but the basic formula remains the same. There are a large number of missions, although most are nigh-on identical, and take place in only a handful of locations.

Now … Digger-Simulator is a turd. Clearly. And yet … And yet … it almost isn’t. There’s this odd sense, when playing, like you can see the game it should have been. Maybe there’s another universe out there, unlike our own, where it works.

There is something to the lazy repetition of the digging, you see, something soothing, almost meditative. You dig, you putter, you dig some more … The hours drift by, and you’re reminded of those hazy afternoons of childhood, sat outside absorbed in some meaningless task, the light fading, the sounds of your dad chopping carrots blending with the voices of football commentators on the radio …

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.

Just once or twice, Digger-Simulator brings these relaxing pursuits to mind. This is, however, but an echo of a dream; the reality is more often banal and tiresome.

The game’s soil — its raison d’etre — looks worryingly like cat litter. It animates in jerks, like a GIF from the nineties. Vehicles surge forwards when driving, and corner as if they were on ice skates. The graphics are flimsy, backdrops look like they’re made of cardboard. Getting stuck in geometry is commonplace and crippling, some missions rendered unplayable thanks to the sheer number of objects your crane will freeze upon. The front end is ugly; purchasing new equipment appears to only work intermittently.

As a piece of software, Digger-Simulator is a mess. As a game it is just dull. There is no artistry, no beauty, no love.

It is not my intent to mock. A game about digging could work. The Stowe Avenue Digging League members (my next-door neighbour and I) took pledges for life, afterall.

Beneath the concrete of our world, the old earth resides. There is magic in the soil. Sadly, though, very little of it can be found within Digger-Simulator 2011.

[Eurogamer sent me this game for winning their reader review competition. I didn’t spend money on it, or anything.]

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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: An Almost Review

Downloadable titles are the McDonald’s of the gaming world. Your virtual self is strolling past the PlayStation Network Store, feeling that base sense of loneliness and hunger that passes as the Human Condition, when up pops a cheerful neon sign promising light and colour and fulfillment. A few clicks and the tastiest of treats can be yours, something warm and inviting that will surely assuage the ache in the bottomless chasm that is otherwise known as your heart.

Such is my reasoning when buying Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

It’s one of those cold, sombre nights. Sepia streets awash with casualties of the nine-to-five grind. I’m in my flat, alone, watching out of the window as work victims struggle home to tend to their wounds. Bleak figures hunched over, as if weathering a storm.

I’ve been smoking too much again. Coming down hard, now, wrestling this notion that the whole universe is one enormous failed experiment. Wipe it all away and start afresh.

There is coffee, yes, and Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent), but everything feels so pointless, so confused, so utterly and irrevocably–

–Which is when I find Sonic 4. Or perhaps Sonic 4 finds me. Brightness, music, action! £9.99 doesn’t seem a bad price for a foray into childhood memories. Green Hill Zones and spin charges and that blue ocean in the background. I can play it right now. This is exactly what I need.

I click. I buy. I play.

Then I remember: I’ve got beef with Sega.

Sonic … I don’t know. Sonic always felt like a phony to me. Too self-consciously cool, like a committee had sat down in Sega’s boardroom and one executive had gone: “Kids love sneakers and spikey hair and the colour blue — what can we do with this?” Mario was — and let’s be honest here — a bit of a blobby buffoon, but crucially he was our blobby buffoon. Sonic felt calculated. He always put me in mind of the phrase “target demographic”. He tried too hard.

As for Sonic 4, it does what all franchises do when they’ve lost their way: it goes back to basics. Out with this glitzy “three-dee” gimmickry that’s gripped the industry of late, and back to the side-scrolling platforming we remember so fondly.

People have been saying this is a game made pretending the last fifteen years never happened, but that isn’t true. That kind of game would be a continuation of the 2D template, an evolution, a growth. Sonic 4 is a retreat.

“Remember when we were great?” Sonic Team are asking. “Buy this and remember when we were great!”

Sonic 4 is competent but never sublime. It does a decent enough job mimicking past successes, but that’s all. It is an emulation of a tested formula, losing somewhat in the translation. The visuals are clean and cheerful, yet conservative, unadventurous. The music is inane. New mechanics — new to Sonic, ancient to the industry — such as torches in dark areas and, you’d scarcely believe, frickin’ minecart rides!, are basic and occasionally poorly implemented. The levels themselves are an homage to — or maybe pastiche of — those from the original Mega Drive title, offering nostalgia aplenty but little in the way of imagination.

Painfully, as well, it breaks one of the golden tenets of game design, which is: never make the player’s failure feel the fault of the game. Too often difficulty spikes rear where you have no way of anticipating the obstacle, and can only learn by dying and taking note. Worse still, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s even required of you — were you right to leap from the rolling ball at that point, but misjudged the angle, or were you meant to stay on? One puzzle involving unlit torches and sliding barriers had me sobbing at the TV screen. But then I am rubbish at all games.

The obvious criticism, of course, is there is little point paying for this bite-size rerun when you could pick up a Virtual Console or other such edition of the original for much cheaper — or even download the ROM for free (World One-Two’s lawyers would like to point out downloading video game ROMs without prior ownership of the software is illegal and World One-Two would never condone such behaviour).

But perhaps this is unfair. Because, you see, there is a dark truth about Sonic — one few will admit. The truth is that Sonic — hushed voice — was never very good. Neither was the Mega Drive.

I feel justified saying this. I owned a Mega Drive for years. It was my first console. Among my friends it was the only console worth having. “Playing Sega” was shorthand for gaming, of any kind. And Sonic was king of it all.

We’d sit around in living rooms on summer’s days, passing controllers back and forth, bedazzled by the blue hedgehog’s speed and early-90s hipness. We were overcome with the thrill and glamour of it all.

… For fifteen minutes. Then we’d yank the cartridge out and play some Desert Strike. Then some Cool Spot, some Streets of Rage, a few matches of Mortal Kombat, a race or two on Road Rash. We devoured like locusts, constantly seeking the next high, moving from one fatty morsel to the next. Our appetites were insatiable. No game lasted long.

What the Mega Drive provided was junk-food gaming — alluring and flashy, but essentially empty. It was marketed as the darker, edgier cousin to the squeeky-clean Super Nintendo — but where a few years later the PlayStation would successfully synergise with a twenty-something pill and spliff and dance audience, Sega’s policy was too frequently shorthand for “games for ten-year-old boys who like guns.” This wasn’t maturity, but the polar opposite. The Mega Drive was for kids who masqueraded as adults because they’d seen Terminator II and knew how to swear.

My stack of twenty or so games sat next to the silent console and gathered dust. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the SNES kids were fastidiously working their way through the Vanilla Dome, or leading Link out into the Dark World, or perfecting strategies for Super Metroid. I had no idea what the PC kids were up to — save that it involved hooded robes and compass directions and strange-looking dice — but they seemed happy enough. I wasn’t happy. I was unfulfilled.

Which is what junk food does for you, in the end. It bypasses your logical, discerning capacities and preys on those subconscious desires we all possess. You never rationally decide to buy junk food like you would fruit or vegetables. It just happens. There’s a flash, you go light-headed — and next thing you know you’re walking away clutching your stomach, wondering where all your money went.

The Mega Drive, with its sexy mash-ups of bad action films, comics and hip hop videos, promised so much to the young male mind — and yet what few of us can admit is that — like all junk food — it was 90% packaging, 10% content.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is the same old Sonic. It kills twenty minutes here and there. It won’t make you feel any better about this misfire of a circle-jerk we call life though. It cost me £9.99. I could have bought Braid for less than that. And I’ve got a load of satsumas rotting in the bottom of my fridge. One day I’ll learn.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a download-only platform game developed by Dimps and Sonic Team, available on PSN, XBox Live, iPhone and WiiWare. Six hundred billion people love Sonic and they’re all going to be mad about what I wrote here, but they’re wrong.


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