“I get lonely when I’m a PlayStation widow.” ~ Ashley Judd

Posted: April 13, 2011 in Gaming
Tags: , , , , , ,

Spring has sprung! And brought with it abject ridiculousness. On Saturday, I got to the root (no pun intended) of my recent toothache: as it turned out, the head on my sonic toothbrush had come loose and the vibrations were tearing my gums apart. Good to know. That same day, in preparation for the evening’s pizza/wine/shitty-movies festivities, John and I went in search of social lubrication. Alas, my elation at being outdoors in a t-shirt for the first time this year was quickly superseded by apoplectic rage at being refused to have alcohol sold to me by some chinless hag in Sainsbury’s. (One of the few occasions where I’ll voluntarily proclaim that I’m twenty fucking seven.) Granted though, this was nowhere near as galling as the story our friend, Nicola, told us that night; about the time she was ID’d for not looking 25, showed her driver’s license which proved she was 24 and had the fucktarded wench at the checkout turn to her and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t sell this to you.” Nicola literally had to call a supervisor over to explain to this utter ‘tard that the policy was about looking 25, not being; and – adding insult to injury – the legal drinking age in the UK is actually 18, which makes the store’s policy almost as ridiculous as their employees’ attempts to enforce it. I went to bed that evening with the worst pizza pregnancy, and awoke to find that the “one” glass of rosé I’d had seemed to have manifested itself as several empty bottles the following morning. Reverse Jesus!

Just this morning, our new coffee table arrived: a vintage steamer trunk from the 1920s. This naturally necessitated the purchase of some coasters, though quite how how I ended up buying everything else on my Amazon wish list is something of a mystery. Before buyer’s regret had a chance to set in, however, I received a phone call from my bank telling me that my shopping spree had been flagged as “suspicious activity” and – as a result – that they’d frozen my account. I’m still not entirely sure if I should feel irritated or grateful. And, because these things always come in threes, my suspicion that the ‘i’ key on my laptop was broken has – in the process of typing this very entry – been definitively answered. Hurrah.

Anyway, it’s become painfully apparent that a fair amount of my time since being back has been consumed by my re-introduction to the world of console gaming. Indeed, the PlayStation Network introduced with the PS3 has even developed a badge of sorts to let you know just how much life I’ve wasted on these endeavours:

To put it in perspective, those trophies are only attainable by completing various “achievements” within the game. These range from the obvious and attainable (bronze: complete the game on easy, silver: complete the game on medium…), to the rewarding and challenging (shoot a zombie in the head while it’s jumping in Resident Evil 5, find all six hidden relics in Tomb Raider: Underworld), to the utterly obscure and fucking ridiculous, impossible to even discover let alone complete without the assistance of an online guide (the most egregious one that comes to mind being Final Fantasy XIII’s request that you put in roughly the same amount of time it took you to finish the game in order to “collect every weapon and accessory” even after the developer’s stop rewarding you with a sftoryline thereby removing any incentive to find them because you’ve finished the fucking game).

The highest accolade is the platinum trophy (of which each game has but one), attainable only by exhaustively completing every inane and painful task their creators set you in order to achieve a 100% completion rate. And, as you can see from the picture above, I already have four of them…including the life-consuming platinum trophy for FFXIII. The only consolation? My crippling OCD dictates that I would have done all those things anyway, so at least now I have a badge to impress other geeks across the globe. (And – in the case of online gaming – you can gauge other people’s trophies to save yourself teaming up with someone shit, and/or purposefully place yourself on the opposing team.)

In either event, I sometimes write LiveJournal entries for the amusement of no one but myself, and – as I’m about to express my views on the highs and lows of the games I’ve been playing of late for the purposes of my own recollection – I’ll forgive you for reading/ignoring the rest of this post as the fancy takes you.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

…being the third and final part of the TR: Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy; and, unfortunately, not as good as either of the two that preceded it. Above and beyond the geographail I mentioned previously (a level marked “Coastal Thailand” which appears to take place entirely in Angkor, Cambodia) or the occasional glitch that afflicts Lara with severe (though blissfully temporary) rheumatoid arthritis, largely it just failed to deliver on the plot-potential handed to it by the previous instalments. Even the reappearance of CEO-cum-former-Queen-of-Atlantis, Jacqueline Natla (original villainess from original 1997 Tomb Raider) wasn’t enough to save it, and that’s coming from someone who was so obsessed with the original game that I can repeat its every dialogue verbatim. (At the tender age of 13, Lara Croft was my first ever crush on a computer game character; doubly redoubled when Angelina Jolie was announced as her live-action counterpart. Alas, only the latter survived my transition to boysville, though I maintain that it must have been love for my digital crush to have existed when she looked as she does on the far left of this evolutionary chart.)

Where it succeeds is, as ever, in Lara’s perennially British wit and its Croft-ian reinterpretation of mythology: in this instance, the Norse variety. Niflheim and the other Norse underworlds are temples buried, literally, under the world; Jörmungandr, the sea-serpent that encircles the world, is revealed as a metaphor for the network of tectonic ridges that encircles the earth on the ocean floor. And – because no good trilogy is complete without a world-threatening crisis – Ragnarök (the foretold battle that ends in the death of the Norse gods, various natural disasters and the world submerged in water) is Natla’s apocalyptic plot to burrow into the weakest point of the aforementioned ridges (where the ancient supercontinent, Pangaea, first broke in two), thus consuming the world in volcanic fire and causing the earth to swallow itself. Genius!

Rather than giving you the satisfaction of dispatching of Natla yourself, however, the game has you traverse the entire globe in search of Thor’s hammer (naturally, only a weapon of the gods can kill a god) then limits your part in her downfall to the dismantling of a drill. It literally ends with the push of a button as Lara succeeds in foiling Natla’s nefarious schemes, but denies you the satisfaction of delivering the finishing blow yourself. Lara does summarily dispatch her with a hammer to the face in the ensuing cut scene, but – after learning that Natla was the one who murdered your father and having her buzzing around you chucking fireballs for the entirety of the final “battle” – it would surely have felt more satisfying to drop the bitch yourself.

Insult to injury: I then had to watch the “real” ending on YouTube. Not only was it not included in the PlayStation release, but even the Xbox version required you to buy the additional levels that didn’t come with the original. Modern gaming: for shame.

Final Fantasy XIII

…is the very reason I should have started this months ago, having finished the game in October and since forgotten everything I was planning to write about it. (In fairness, the average Final Fantasy plotline runs around the 60-hour mark so you’ll forgive me if – half a year later – my impressions are a little hazy.) It’s also the reason I bought the PS3, after Colin gifted me the game itself thus necessitating a console to play it on. This did, however, come after a prolonged period of having my students in Japan tell me that they’d played it months before the English version was even released, so – to me at least – it felt long overdue.

As I relinquished the next week of my life to Square Enix’s latest offering, I was immediately struck by two things. First: that this was easily the most beautiful game I’d ever played. In the past, FF games would be interspersed with gorgeous, pre-rendered movies – heretofore known as F(ull)M(otion)V(ideo)s – that looked something like this, while the sections you yourself controlled would look a little more like this. While even those in-game sequences were, of course, revolutionary for their time, the transition to the PS2 for Final Fantasies X through XII did allow them to bridge the gap somewhat between the FMVs and the game you actually played. When I began FFXIII, however, it took me a brief moment after this appeared on the screen:

…to realise that the game now wanted me to take the reins. It is, simply put, unremittingly gorgeous, and each new city (and later, world) is as stunning as the last. Far less lucid is the game’s dialogue; which, for the first hour or so, is utterly inscrutable. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, we’re thrown into a world with a vernacular all its own with no glossary to speak of. Of course these words start to take on meaning as the plot provides context, but it does take until we’re well into the second chapter (of which there are, naturally, 13) before one can follow a conversation with any real degree of understanding. Later, the game provides a “Datalog” which functions as a kind of slowly-unfolding index to keep you, if not ahead of the story, then at least abreast of it, which definitely helps, though I confess that the language immersion didn’t bother me to begin with. I have, however, read more than a few complaints from people who felt the Datalog took them out of the story (both literally and figuratively) and while I can’t say I resented reading a few paragraphs of text every now and again, I do agree that the writers could probably have done a better job of providing exposition through the storyline itself rather than having it tucked away in a menu somewhere.

Nevertheless: the plot as one eventually comes to understand it is thus. Supernatural beings called fal’Cie are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the land where humans dwell and indirectly govern their lives. There are two kinds of fal’Cie: the ones who rule over the idyllic technopolis of Cocoon, and those who rule the primal lower-world of Pulse. The fal’Cie are capable of creating l’Cie (still following?): humans branded with a tattoo and given a destiny (in FFXIII parlance, a “Focus”) which – if accomplished – affords them everlasting life (albeit in the form of a crystal) and – if unfulfilled – curses them to un-death as monstrous crystalline zombie-creatures called Cie’th. Making matters slightly more complicated, the l’Cie aren’t explicitly told their Focus, but rather, are left to figure out with the assistance of some vague, largely unhelpful visions.

Cocoon’s overtly-religious government spreads propaganda about the dangers of Pulse, and – though no one has ever been there – its denizens are reviled and outlawed following the devastating War of Transgression that occurred 500 years before the game begins. Of particular revulsion are the Pulse l’Cie – tools of fal’Cie from the “evil” world below – who’re considered dangerous enemies of Cocoon’s society. After a piece of Pulse architecture (called a Vestige) is found in Cocoon, however, panic spreads, and the government orders a “Purge” of all those potentially affected: which, just to be thorough, is every member of Cocoon society who could possibly have come in contact with it including the entire population of a certain seaside town. Those involved in the Purge are told that they’ll be transported to the surface of the hellish Gran Pulse, but – if it’s any consolation – soon discover that they’re actually just being sent to the slaughter. Of course, this sparks a rebellion among the “Purged”, which is where the game begins.

The main character is Lightning (which is also her name in the Japanese version, albeit it probably sounded a lot cooler to them than it does in its native language): a rare female protagonist for the series, and only the second since FFVI’s Terra. She’s a soldier in the Cocoon army (or was before she was summarily Purged) and is something of a stoic hard-ass in the vein of FFVIII’s Squall. As it turns out, she actually volunteered for the Purge in order to bring her closer to the Vestige and her younger sister, Serah, who’s being held aboard it. Within the opening minutes of the introductory movie, she derails the train taking her to be Purged, frees the prisoners and joins forces with Snow (noticing a theme?), leader of the rebel army and, as it so happens, Serah’s boyfriend. Also in tow is a black guy named Sazh, and two kids, Hope (a whiny little bitch who blames Snow for his mother’s death after she dies protecting our strapping blonde hero) and Vanille, a perpetually optimistic girl with an Australian accent (it makes sense later) and a voice which apparently drove multiple player to distraction. (I personally would never have guessed that she provokes such antipathy if it weren’t for the fact that John had to leave the room whenever she was on screen.) Later, we meet our sixth and final playable character: a warrior woman named Fang who – it emerges – was a companion of Vanille’s and who, accordingly, also has an Aussie accent.

In true Final Fantasy fashion – where one invariably ends up controlling a rag-tag band of anti-heroes fighting a corrupt organisation – our cast meets aboard the Pulse vestige but just as they destroy the Pulse fal’Cie aboard, it uses its remaining strength to curse them all to become Pulse l’Cie. Their only clue to their Focus: a hazy vision of a monstrous being known as Ragnarok (!) destroying the world of Cocoon. Now, sworn enemies of Cocoon and hunted by their own people, they have to figure out their Focus before it’s too late, knowing that their fate is sealed either way: eternal life frozen in crystal or doomed to walk the earth as a shambling Cie’th.

FFXIII takes some risks with its storytelling, and rather than have the characters travel as a six-strong party as is the standard, they frequently branch off into pairs or threes, experiencing very disparate journeys until well into the game when the plot dictates that they all meet up again. It doesn’t always work, and at times it can feel a little choppy. But when it does, it creates some unlikely and illuminating pairings, and there’s a genuine sense of growth and rapport between the cast. That all of this occurs within the first few hours of the game was a source of untold elation to me, having feared a repeat of its predecessor and – for me – all-time series low, FFXII. As a measure of just how unimpressive the latter is, I can list the names of every previous cast from VII onwards but would have to think long and hard before I could tell you the names of any of the characters from XII besides bunny girl and companion, Fran and Balthier. (Actually I might struggle with IX as well, which – by no small coincidence – was my least favourite until XII.) XII, though, was so utterly without characterisation (there’s more character development in the last 10 minutes of the game than the other 100 hours combined, which is – I believe – the very definition of ‘too little, too late’) that I literally can’t remember the storyline because I was so utterly disinterested in the fate of these bland, soulless automatons. That we end with a genuine sense of who Lightning & co. are as people as a result of their interactions was therefore enough to elevate it far above its immediate forerunner in my affections.

Ironically then, where the game starts to slip up a little is when it’s actually viewed as a game. Battles in Final Fantasy games generally present you with increasingly complicated menus and sub-menus that allow your characters to perform various actions. In FFXIII, they’re all still there, but in the beginning, the game offers you an “Auto-Battle” button which causes the computer to pick the best actions for your current situation and execute them. In theory, you’d come to depend less and less on Auto-Battle as the complexity of the fights start to demand more strategy on the part of the player. In practice, the battles rarely require any thought outside of a scarce few boss fights late in the game, and you can easily finish most of it hitting nothing except the Auto-Battle button the entire time.

To add depth, your characters all specialise in certain roles: commandos excel in physical damage, medics heal, saboteurs weaken the enemies’ defences, etc. You can create a deck of up to six different combinations (or ‘Paradigms’) of these roles, and your characters can switch Paradigms mid-battle to allow them access to different skill sets as long as they’re trained in that role. In theory, it sounds very deep, but again, I had two mainstays: Aggressions (two people dealing physical damage, one dealing magic damage) and Relentless Assault (two magic, one physical) which I used for pretty much the entirety of the game (with an occasional medic thrown in if things really started to go tits-up). The game heals/revives all of your character after each battle so there’s rarely an incentive to keep them healthy during the fights themselves and if you can win by sheer brutality before the enemy has a chance to take you out, it’s smooth sailing. By the end of the game, your characters will have access to a dazzling array of exciting skills; of which you’ll need maybe 10% tops to finish the main storyline.

Making matters worse, the 10th and final “tier” of your skill sets becomes available only after you’ve finished the game, which would be lovely except that the only thing left to do is clean up a somewhat laborious set of side-quests that basically involve running around the surface of Gran Pulse and killing things 400 times harder than any other enemies you’ve encountered so far (including the final boss). As a bonus, these later battles are an opportunity to use the other 90% of the battle system, but it would have been nice if the game could have struck a better balance between the simplicity of the main game and the difficulty of what follows. Gran Pulse itself is – by the way – a somewhat wasted opportunity. Later into the game, you find yourself transported to the beautifully-rendered, lush, primal world below Cocoon with horizons that stretch far beyond anything you’ve encountered so far where impossibly huge dinosaur-like monsters roam the land. It’s truly awe-inspiring…right up until you realise that there’s virtually nothing to do there. Those behemoths are literally impossible to kill (until you come back after finishing the game of course) and so you simply have to run from one end of the plain to other, avoiding monsters along the way until you finally encounter one of the sparse few human settlements that drive the plot forward. There are other moments, too, that have so much seeming potential but are ultimately never expanded on: characters like Snow’s rebel companions, for instance. They’re introduced in Chapter 1, all with interesting character designs (foremost among them, the “fashion-obsessed” pretty boy, Yuj) but the game soon forgets their very existence until they reappear five minutes before it’s all over.

On a similar note is the use of Eidolons: spirits who appear to l’Cie in times of despair and – if they can be bested in a one-on-one fight to the death – serve that l’Cie in all their future battles. The Eidolons of FFXIII also double as transformers, and one of the coolest scenes in the entire game involves the cast returning to Cocoon riding their respective Eidolons. Sadly, while the first maybe three them are introduced during significant parts of the storyline where the characters have reached a breaking point, it almost feels like the developers got to Chapter 10, realised that half the cast were still without Eidolons and crammed the rest of them in as an afterthought. And, as with the Paradigms, there’s really just no need to use them when the Auto-Battle button is more than taking care of things for you.

For me, however, the most egregious of all the game’s faults came as a direct result of my quest to get that god-forsaken platinum trophy. You’re able to buy (or more accurately, build) new weapons and accessories for your characters from shops available at the game’s many save points. I finished the entire game without upgrading a single weapon because the system was such an unholy mess. Raw materials dropped by the enemies you fight bestow a seemingly arbitrary amount of experience points to your equipment (though thanks to the game’s official guide, I later learned that these numbers aren’t, in fact, arbitrary but simply a complete mindfuck of mathematical multipliers depending on whether you use in/organic components). The game also provides you with so little money that you’ll wind up googling a strategy to fight those earlier behemoths in an endless, painfully repetitive loop in the hopes of them dropping the one component you can sell to continue your upgrading, which has a one in ten chance of even happening. I once lived in the same building as a self-confessed World of Warcraft geek who would refer to this as “farming”. Well, suffice it to say that if I wanted to spend my days “farming” monsters on a computer game, I’d play World of fucking Warcraft. You’re required to obtain every weapon and accessory in the entire game before it rewards your blood, sweat and tears with that elusive platinum trophy, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the process of finishing the side quests and upgrading all of the equipment takes roughly as long to complete as finishing the main storyline; the only difference being that the former task is utterly thankless since – by necessity – you have to have already finished the game to complete it.

In spite of all these things, therefore, it speaks to the strength of the game’s storyline and characters that I still loved it. Virtually the only non-gameplay-related element that bothered me was the soundtrack, and that’s only because I’ve been mourning the loss of composer, Nobuo Uematsu, ever since he stopped working on the series. Well, that and the use of vocal tracks in areas where I had to read the Datalog, but that has more to do with my own inordinate difficulty reading when there’s any music on that isn’t entirely instrumental. (I’ll even forgive them the scandalous use of a Leona Lewis song over the ending since it was used to such lovely effect.) It’s not the strongest storyline (the evil religious zealot angle is, at times, a little reminiscent of FFX), but unlike its predecessor, at least it has one. And in all honesty: I’d take a plot that arouses mild déjà vu over one that inspires complete amnesia any day. Final Fantasy VII remains my favourite, followed by X, or sometimes VIII depending on my mood. IX wasn’t nearly as big a disappointment as XII, it just took the “fantasy” theme a little too far in the hackneyed direction of castles and dragons. But XIII exists in very comfortable middle ground, being neither groundbreaking nor genre-defining but still thoroughly memorable and, moreover, moving. To date, there are only a select few FFs that have actually made me cry, and as of its closing scene, Final Fantasy XIII can now be counted among them.

Resident Evil 5

…was criticised for being racist. To put that in perspective: people thought that a white man shooting infected black people in Africa was unacceptable but when the previous instalment saw a white American shooting up an entire village in Europe, no one raised an eyebrow. Would it have been less racist if a virus released in Africa didn’t affect black people? Would a black character shooting white people have been met with any less criticism for portraying black people as violent? No. And as such, the only real conclusion one can draw from all this is that people are morons. In either event: this is a very good game.

Resident Evil 4 was lauded as revolutionising the series. RE5 takes all of those improvements and…well, keeps them exactly the same. While this doesn’t make for anything groundbreaking, it does mean that everything that was good about RE4 is still here, and with a PS3 facelift. Like RE4, though, it’s a lot less scary than previous entries, opting more for adrenailine rush horror than the “I just walked into a bathroom and noticed a zombie behind me in the mirror” terror that the originals incited. You play as Chris Redfield (protagonist from the original RE and his first outing since RE:Code Veronica), and soon team up with Sheva Alomar of the BSAA (Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance) West Africa division. This is one area where RE5 significantly departs from its predecessors: in the past, you’d occasionally be joined with a partner who would variously help or hinder you for small sections of the game. Here, Sheva is your companion for the long haul.

Naturally, Sheva also met with criticism (her skin was too light. No, seriously), though my reasons for hating her were far more transparent. It’s not because her accent vacillates wildly between Afican, British and something else entirely, but rather that her computer-controlled AI renders her completely fucking moronic. I remember one boss fight in particular that could have been over in mere minutes were it not for Sheva’s lemming-like death wish. This went on for almost an hour before I managed to kill it before Sheva killed herself. She also has the second worst line of dialogue in the entire game (“This is for our fallen comrades.” Unnecessary.) though I suppose that’s the scriptwriter’s fault and not hers. The worst, if you’re wondering is, “I couldn’t control my actions…oh but, God, I was still aware.” and in fairness, the only reason these stand out as so egregiously bad is that the rest of the voice acting is really very good.

Interestingly, these criticisms are nulled entirely when playing the game using online co-op. I admit that I’m not a fan of online gaming, in part because I don’t like playing with strangers who ragequit mid-game or – on the other end of the spectrum – with people who’ve dedicated their entire existence to the mastery of a video game and smugly reign over the zomgn00bz from the comfort of their parents’ basement. More than that, however, is the fact that I like my games like I like my movies: which is to say plot-driven and finite. I couldn’t play an MMORPG because there’s no real promise of it ending, and I don’t particularly enjoy games like Starcraft because amassing an army, waging a war and winning/losing and starting over quickly begins to feel pointless. Basically, if I don’t feel anything for the characters I’m playing, I’m not especially interested in the game full stop. What’s wonderful about RE5, therefore, was that I could play the game’s main storyline and – eliminating my issues with stranger danger – I was able to take control of Sheva while Colin – on the other coast of Scotland – filled the role of Chris.

In yet another quest for the platinum trophy, we played on Professional mode (the game’s highest difficulty) where a single zombie bite or bullet wound will send your health plummeting to near-death while the infected masses are more robust than ever. Far from being frustrating, however, I rather enjoyed Chris and Sheva’s newfound fragility, finding that it added a certain believability to the proceedings. (One imagines that if a zombie did tear out ones throat, it might require a little more than a bandage.) It’s so very telling, though, that even with those unenviable odds, I still found it easier to finish the game on Pro for the simple reason that I didn’t have to worry about my partner killing themselves every five minutes. Indeed, the majority of our deaths came as a result of typing messages back and forth over the PlayStation network making fun of lines like “oh, but God, I was still aware” while the zombies proceeded to slaughter is in the background. Thankfully, Colin has since given me his old headset, so when the inevitable Resident Evil 6 rolls round, joining the peanut gallery will be a slightly less deadly endeavour.


Aaaaand, because I’m not adhering particularly well to my plan of writing a few sentences about each game, let’s stop there for now. Dishonourable mention does, however, go to Tekken 6: which John and I bought together because its predecessors are among those rare computer games that he actually played outside of The Sims. Sadly for both us then, it sucked so hard that the minute the game informed me I’d acquired its platinum trophy, I took it out of the machine and cast it back into its box, never to return.

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