August. A month invented by the greatest Roman emperor ever – Augustus “Jesus Who?” Caesar. Legend has it that he renamed the month that Cleopatra was born in as August – supposedly as a sign of respect after defeating her in 8 BC. That’s like a bully showing respect for his victim by posting footage of his latest beatdown on YouTube. Stay classy, Gus.
Down in Threepaper’s hemisphere, August 2010 has provided a number of reasons to ignore the outside world and play videogames. It’s the last month of winter, wherein the days get incrementally longer and it rains just a little bit more than expected. It’s been a month of fantasy footy finals, wherein the fevered assessment of players’ dollar values gives way to a sweaty suspicion that it’s all just empty numbers and dumb luck. It’s been a month of national elections resulting in a hung parliament, wherein a nation reared its head and went “Meh”.
Despite all this, for console gamers August 2010 has seen no major releases*. We who thirst for the new have been surviving on a few moist droplets of publicity for the big franchises that are slated to drop a colon-punctuated instalment during the pre- Xmas bonanza — Fallout: New Vegas, Star Wars: The PG-rated Lightsaber That Doesn’t Remove Limbs 2, Call of Shooty: Encouraging douchey behaviour online since 2007!! etc etc.
August has therefore been a good time to clear out the backlog. Yep, I rummaged through the Threepaper Pile of Shame and broke out some of the unfinished games of yestermonth. In true Pile of Shame fashion, I haven’t finished any of these titles yet, saving me a trip to the Cave for digital assignment. However, given that all the games in my Pile of Shame are also in the Pile of Discounts at your local game shop, I wanted to share some notes on what I’ve been enjoying in case it helps clinch the deal for you.
The Saboteur (Pandemic Studios)
This is the Pile game I’ve spent the most time on. Released late in 2009, The Saboteur made some headlines for its mature content. Given that videogames are still using a medieval scale of maturity, whereby 14 years old is practically middle-aged, “mature” generally means “tits and swearing”. Luckily there is a half decent game underneath the cheap thrills.
The Saboteur is an open world blow-em-up set in Nazi-occupied Paris. You play Sean Devlin, an Irish race car driver who turns into a Resistance freedom fighter after some Nazi race car driver gives him a noogie in the introductory mission. It’s based on a real person and events, in the same way that Pocahontas was. So, apparently there really was an Irish bloke in Paris between 1939 and 1945.
In terms of game mechanics, it combines the usual open world activities of running, shooting and driving with climbing and stealth that has been based on Assassin’s Creed, but made more cumbersome so as to not look like a complete rip off. For example, instead of holding down R2 and navigating facades effortlessly with the left stick, you have to press X each time you want to move from one ledge to another. This constant pressing of X makes climbing more of a chore, especially when Sean is on the lam.
The stealth system is complicated too. You become stealthy by punching out a Nazi and stealing his uniform. After that you have low profile actions that don’t attract attention, like walking really slowly, and high profile actions that arouse suspicion and cause Nazis to chase you, like doing anything else. If you do something really sus (read fun) like shooting, you will activate a suspicion ring – a circle within which Nazis are extra suspicious and will eventually see through your disguise if you don’t leave the circle in time. But if you run out of the circle, they get suspicious! High ranking Nazis and sensitive installations also have their own suspicion ring.
The upshot is that it is very easy to be spotted unless you are walking very slowly far away from Nazis. This may be realistic but it makes stealthing a drag. I guess my stealth expectations are spoiled by Metal Gear Solid, where you can go through the whole game without being seen. Often it is easier in The Saboteur to go in all guns blazing and shoot the waves of Nazis until you’ve achieved your objective. There are different uniforms for different ranks of Nazi and they all do the same thing stealthwise. It would have added a strategic layer to the stealth if uniforms of a different rank of Nazi had different stealth values— such that wearing a Gestapo colonel’s uniform would give you more time before you were found out than if you were wearing a standard grunt’s outfit.
Besides the missions, which have been decent, I have been destroying the Nazi installations, called Freeplay targets, littered around the map. Unlike Just Cause 2, the things you can blow up are not vital civilian infrastructure like water tanks or power generators – they tend to be guard posts or ammo stores. Blowing up Freeplay targets yields cash for weapons, ammo and more explosives. There’s also a cool visual effect where Nazi-occupied areas are rendered in black and white and when you blow up enough targets in an area it goes to colour. The thing about Freeplay targets is that there are hundreds of them! It’s a completionist’s nightmare.
I have also spent a lot of game time trying to earn Perks. If you do more specific tasks like kill X Nazis in a certain way, you unlock a Perk, usually a new weapon or move. What I like about the Perks is that they unlock a reward in the game, rather than unlocking a crappy trophy. This to me is a greater incentive to carry out the task required for each Perk.
Like Red Dead Redemption, I’ve been enjoying the side activities (and the freedom to do them how I want) more than the main story. In order to finish off the story I’ll have to check my OCD and forget about those pesky Freeplay targets.
Darksiders (Vigil Games)
Darksiders came out in January 2010 and was summarily dismissed by many as “God of War meets Zelda”. In relation to the God of War comparison, Darksiders kinda led with its chin in that the character you play is, err … War, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Someone called the apocalypse early and War turned up to smash stuff, only to get framed for jumping the gun. He has to roam around a post-apocalyptic world that he helped destroy and find out who set him up. On the way there are some detailed dungeons to explore and angels and demons to fight.
The combat system isn’t as finessed as in God of War – there are no real combos, as each weapon you get has only one attack button. There’s less requirement to block and counter and more focus on simply dealing damage. My effectiveness in combat seems to be more a result of my upgrade choices than my technique. During the course of the game you can amass a variety of weapons and magic and this keeps combat interesting. That said, some boss fights and challenge rooms have been quite difficult.
Aside from the combat, there’s puzzle-platforming, which is where the “meets Zelda” part of the description comes in. I never played a Zelda game so I don’t know or care about that. The puzzles mostly revolve around how to get from A to B in an environment and require you to use your gadgets and move objects around. Early on, you get a slicey four-bladed boomerang that can be programmed to hit multiple targets in sequence. This becomes your multi-purpose puzzle-solving tool. Darksiders also uses that familiar device of sealing bits of the world off until you get a device that can do something, eg there’s blue crystal lying around that you need a special glove to be able to smash. This device was used in Batman: Arkham Asylum and a whole host of games before, some of which may indeed include Legend of Zelda games.
It’s clear that Darksiders borrows elements from plenty of other games. You could point to almost any part of the game and say it has been done before. The one original element is the story, which is nothing to show Roger Ebert but it isn’t atrocious either.
On paper I realise this isn’t the most original game ever, but I’m still enjoying it. The combat system isn’t deep but it’s passable. What’s keeping me going is primarily the puzzle platforming, which is more difficult than the puzzling in God of War 3. Also I am a sucker for rudimentary upgrade systems and exploring for ingame currency to purchase said upgrades. If only I was so determined on chasing currency in real life! Then again, if only making money in real life was as easy as finding an abandoned box somewhere and smashing it open. I have had a hard time deciding what to get at the upgrade shop, which is a good sign – it shows that the rewards are not too easy and the choices are genuine.
The encouraging thing about Vigil Games’ effort here is that they shown that they know what works in a videogame and how to put them together, which bodes well for future games from this new developer.
Bayonetta (Platinum Games)
Here’s another brawler with puzzler elements. I’ve only just got back into it. The combat system is way deeper than in Darksiders. It’s chockas with well-animated combos and crazy acrobatics like shooting with guns … on your feet. The enemies increasingly require you to use timing, counters, blocking and judicious use of special attacks.
Bayonetta can unleash Torture Attacks once she has filled up a meter by doing enough combos. Plus there is Witch Time, which kicks in with a well-timed block and slows down time around Bayonetta. At the relatively early stage of the game that I’m in, Witch Time has just started to become important for fighting tougher foes.
Another small touch that keeps me focused on the biffo is the ability to practice moves during loading screens. Such a small thing, but so handy! Like making a cup of tea during an ad break, you feel you are making productive use of an otherwise tedious interval.
I couldn’t tell you much about the story. It’s completely loopy and early on I got annoyed at the J-game tropes that infest it, not the least of which being the lame attempts at humour. So I’ve been skipping the cutscenes and am still enjoying the game. I don’t feel I’ve missed much, because the fighting is so engrossing – and that’s despite the almost leery obsession the game has with getting Bayonetta nude during fights. I’m sure it could all be defended by some worthy writer with more impressive feminist credentials than I. All I can say is that in the Threepaper household, the gratuitous arse and cleavage shots of Bayonetta make me cringe and they provide a further footnote for my girlfriend’s general thesis regarding the puerility of my hobby. However, underneath all that pervy exploitation is a genuinely complex combat system that is fun to learn and challenging to master.
*Shut up Starcraft fans! I said console gamers