In the interests of picking up the pace a little, I thought that when I didn’t have a proper feature to give you, I might start posting brief thoughts on games I’d been playing that week instead. Not a proper review, you understand, just a quick sketch. First up to the plate is the fourth iteration in the Halo series, appropriately known as Halo 4.
There’s an old adage that runs “if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it”, which I presume is emblazoned in thirty-foot high fiery letters on the wall of the Halo development office. Because my initial impression of Halo 4 is how very much like the original Halo it is.
You’re still limited to two weapons and some grenades, from a roster that’s barely changed, dropped by enemies that have barely changed, and occasionally you’ll come across some vehicle sections that have barely changed. As the saying goes, it ‘aint broke, so it’s still fun to charge around on Warthogs gunning down the Covenant and new Promethean enemies, but after three previous entries it’s a lot less fun that it used to be.
Of course as a late-cycle Xbox 360 game it looks amazing compared to its predecessors, and many of the scenes were clearly designed to wow the player. And there are a few new additions – a welcome raft of abilities for your armour and a less welcome portrayal of Cortana as some sort of super-curvy cyber-babe. I’ll be playing it a while yet. But if Microsoft are still seeing Halo exclusives as a prime selling point for the Xbone, they really ought to do something about shaking up the rapidly ossifying gameplay.
This morning I traded my copy of Dishonored in for credit toward a couple of Wii U games. The GameStop clerk asked me what I thought about it and I told him bluntly “It’s awesome for about the first third, and then it just runs out of whale oil.” That opinion might surprise NHS readers who recall my first impressions article that I wrote a month ago, in which I was really impressed by the first couple of hours. I stand by what I wrote then, and Dishonored does pass my one hour test. It is a good game, definitely not crap. However, I came to realize seven missions in that it wasn’t a good game worth playing.
There’s a lot to like about Dishonored. The art style is awesome. The retro, Thief-inspired gameplay that values exploration and experimentation over carnival ride-like linearity and reduction of player choice can be lots of fun. The setting is original and the sci-fi is compelling. But there are some rather tragic design-level issues that ultimately undermined all of the good things in the game and resulted in the game sitting in my to-trade pile.
First and most significantly, the development curve of the game is completely screwed up. This is a root cause of most of my other grievances with the game. But at a fundamental level, this is a game where you are so advantaged and over-equipped halfway through the game. The poor AI, which fluctuates between Superman-level heightened senses and the awareness of your 90 year old great grandpa, just can’t keep up once you level up your gear and talents. The problem is that it never feels empowering or cool, like it does in the Arkham games. It just feels like the game is too easy (and I was playing on hard). It turns out that there isn’t really much to develop or explore in terms of ability or equipment development.
Adjunct to this complaint, I found all of the abilities, equipment, and bone charm perks to be staggeringly dull. I didn’t really care about any of them. Yeah, it sounded awesome in the early previews, all this talk about possessing rats. But in practice…it’s really kind of lame. I possess a rat, run through a hole, and come out somewhere that I have three other ways to get to, none of which are any more challenging or interesting. Initially I was playing a no-kill, all stealth game. That completely ruled out about two-thirds of the available weapons and skills. Why do I care about upgrading my pistol or burning bodies to ash when I’m trying to just make ‘em go to sleep? Better yet, why would I bother plunking a guard with three crossbow bolts when one sleep dart will put them down for the one, two, three?
I never even really paid any attention to the bone charms and their minute benefits, and four missions in I realized that I also didn’t care about collecting the runes. I didn’t see where it was really improving my abilities all that much. But more damning, I didn’t see where finding them and using them was making the game any more fun.
The abilities are also an issue because they made the game feel incredibly game-y. I’m borrowing a board game term here. That means that artificial, necessitated mechanics disrupt the dramaturgy, setting, and atmosphere of the game. The blink teleport ability was actually more game-y than Batman’s detective vision in Arkham Asylum. Having to cower in a cardboard box and hope that a guard doesn’t see you is awesome stealth gameplay. Being able to blink up to a street lamp and sit there until they go away isn’t, nor is knowing that you can just kill them with a brutal finishing move if it comes to blows. It got to the point where I was just blinking constantly just to avoid everything, particularly the clunky combat. It’s not like the vials that refill your mana are hard to come by.
So I found that I didn’t really care about Corvo’s abilities or tools, and it even got to the point where I was really kind of actively ignoring almost everything on the selection dial other than blink, the sleep darts, and the occasional dark vision. And those three overused tools reminded me of what I really liked about the opening of the game. At first, you don’t have all of this stuff. You can’t see cones of vision (that’s gamey), you can’t blink past a guard, and you can’t just sleep-snipe everybody in sight. It felt raw, tense, and instinctual. I felt like I was doing something cool, sneaking around. Once I hit the screwed-up development curve and plateaued, it didn’t feel cool anymore. It felt boring.
I knew that my time was at an end with the game when I literally ran through the mission where you have to nab Nikolai Sokolov in his greenhouse. I think I spent fifteen minutes on that one, whereas I had spent an hour or more or some of the earlier scenarios. I just did not care about the bone charms, whatever the hell that heart was saying, or figuring out ways to be sneaky around the Tall Boys (who are not PBR cans, as you might surmise). The mission after had me going back to Dunwall tower, and to get to it there was a part where you have to blink your way up through this waterlock in a terrible, terrible bit of platforming. I turned the game off and said “that’s it”.
I don’t regret playing it, and I had fun with it for quite a few hours. There are some really cool scenes, like a poisoning early in the game and a great scene at a party for Dunwall’s elite where you have to sort out who your target is with three ladies. That one in particular had one of the coolest, most ambiguous outcomes I’ve ever seen. A guy asks you to bring the target down to the basement because she’s the love of his life. You have to knock her out to do so. Once you’re down there, he loads her on a boat and says “thank you, I know that in time I can make her love me”. He rides off on the boat, and there’s this really chilling realization. You basically just aided a crazy man in an abduction. That was pretty twisted, and it demonstrates the quality that this game is capable of in its best moments.
But most of the writing is dull, predictable, and not particularly inspired, despite allusions that your actions will result in certain consequences or a change in the game’s tone. The only detectable tone two-thirds of way through is one of depleted energy, dullness, and a sense that the game’s given you all that it’s capable of and you’re in overtime. In the end, Dishonored is a disappointment. It’s definitely a good game and I think the development team definitely had their heart in the right place. Dishonored 2 might be one to watch, but for right now the stealth game to play remains Mark of the Ninja.
When I think of what makes Halo great, I think of things like simple, accessible shooter gameplay built on a rock-solid foundation of impeccably balanced and specialized weapons leveraged in sandbox-y encounters that invite me to develop strategies and overcome impossible odds. I think of raucous multiplayer battles that feel more like schoolyard games than uber-macho paramilitary kill-fests. I’m put in mind of epic vistas and setpieces where I’m taking down a massive enemy vehicle single-handedly or riding out across an alien terrain in a cool tank. Then there’s the sweeping, portentous music and the particular sound of it all- from the announcer that says “Sssslayer” to the report of one of the game’s ubiquitous assault rifles. These things are all part of what Halo is to me.
It was when I was firing one of those assault rifles early on in the single player game that I realized that I wasn’t playing a Bungie Halo game, but a 343 Industries one. It sounded bigger, meatier, and richer. Everything did. Come to find out, they reworked all of the sound and if it’s not an entirely new graphics engine, then I’m shocked because the game looks sometimes astonishingly good. Who’s really impressed with graphics anymore? Play Halo 4, and you will be. During the opening cutscene, I actually had to kind of squint to see if the characters were real actors or CGI models.
343’s effort is an immaculate piece of AAA game-making, reportedly the most expensive game Microsoft has ever made. It shows. This is the product of folks working at the peak of their technical and artistic craft, every single element of the production from texturing and character animation to interface design and dynamic lighting is almost staggeringly polished and refined to near-perfection. But most importantly, Halo 4 is a smash success following up on 46 million copies and $3 billion dollars worth of successes , regardless of who’s steering the ship. In other words, they got it right and it’s money in the bank. More than that, I think it is likely the best Halo game to date if only because it is so carefully studied, constructed on the established foundations of this massive franchise.
But following on from and building on Halo’s past also means that some of the other things I think about when I think of Halo are there. The not-so-good things, mostly connected to the single-player campaign. The first part of the “Reclaimer Trilogy” story is another somewhat vague framework for outstanding gameplay and a number of bravura action sequences- almost all of which are player-controlled, not cutscenes. Master Chief is back, as adverstised, as is Cortana. Complete with all of her horribly written, horribly executed comedic relief lines. Some of the emotional beats playing to the silly relationship between Spartan and AI actually had me groaning, which is a huge disappointment in a game that is otherwise best-in-class. Believe me, the scene where you’re practically a one-man escort for the world’s biggest Tonka truck will make all of the feeble writing worth sitting through.
So yet again, the writing and story isn’t what it could be. Since I’ve never really been invested in the Halo story or the transmedia surrounding it, I found myself wondering why in the hell I was fighting my way up to a button and who the hell the Forerunners are, anyway. It didn’t really matter, I had a great time anyway and I just sort of shrugged off the nonsense. Hell, if nothing else the soft-headed story dragged me through some really awesome-looking places across several different kinds of environments.
And I do mean dragged, because Halo 4 can be brutally, refreshingly difficult when played on the Heroic or Legendary settings, which is really what you should do. The difficulty makes every firefight, sniper alley, or desperate rush tense and exciting, with a great sense of reward when you work out that guerilla tactics will get you through an area or simply playing the stealth game and avoiding a fight altogether is the best option. And there’s always the issue of bringing the right tools to the bench, so to speak. I love that in Halo 4, as in past Halo games, the two weapons you’re carrying are a major strategic concern.
So Halo 4 is Halo, and all that entails- which is both exactly what I wanted it to be, but it is also a minor disappointment. I went into Halo 4 hoping that 343 would really rock the boat, upending the series and revitalizing it with new concepts and forward-thinking ideas. It seemed like the mandate was there with the changeover in stewardship. But they really didn’t change that much in the formula other than bringing in some challenging new enemies that fight nothing at all like the Covenant or the Flood and an entire armory to go with them. Sure, they put you behind the stick of a Pelican and there’s a new mech you can rampage in, but most of the game is, as stated, a continuation of ideas from past games including Reach and ODST.
A reality check is in order. Halo simply can not be innovative and groundbreaking anymore because it is such a successful franchise. The old saying goes, “don’t mess with success”. You don’t gamble on a release like this. You make a game that will please most of the people most of the time. The developers can fidget with some elements of it, but ultimately this game has to be Halo first and foremost, and it has to touch all of those Halo things. You can’t possibly say they failed in doing so. No, it’s not the latest heart-filled, scrappy indie game made with ten grand of Kickstarter funds and the pipe dream of remaking an esoteric 1990s PC game. But anyone who thinks that 343 didn’t knock this out of the park- while also setting the stage for the next generation of FPS games- needs to get their head checked. So what if they stayed the course. It worked.
However, this stay the course approach is mostly apparent in the single-player offering, which is extremely generous for a linear playthrough but virtually unlimited in replay thanks to co-op and modifying skulls. The multiplayer game, where many would say that Halo comes alive, has seen some pretty extensive renovation and I’m not quite sure yet what to make of it all both because I’m kind of overwhelmed by the changes and also because I need some more time beyond the review period to sort of let it all settle in. there’s a new leveling system with unlocks, killstreak-like weapon drops, and a much wider range of customization and ability options. it’s a fairly controlled set of variables, but it is still moving Halo away from the more egalitarian multiplayer game of Reach and all before and more toward a Call of Duty-like system where some players have, and some do not. I don’t mind ending a game feeling outperformed, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve just been outgunned because I don’t have the top unlocks.
The maps are awesome, as good as anything in past Halo games, and the game types are the usual mix of fun Slayer and objective types and there are tons of customization options for each. Many, I predict, will bemoan the loss of Firefight but rest assured that the new Spartan Ops game, which is sort of cross between Call of Duty’s SpecOps and Firefight, is likely to emerge as something far better. it’s a series of weekly missions, complete with cutscenes and narrative context, that can be tackled solo or with three other players. I really like that it’s practically a serial, ongoing campaign.
I’ve not even touched Forge or any of the theater options but they’re available for the interested. One of my favorite things about Halo has always been that it lets players play the game they want to play, and 343i has maintained this design principle. If you don’t like the new leveling system and abilities, you can set up games without them and go purely old school. If you hate multiplayer, there’s tons of single-player game to be had or you could never touch the campaign and solely play this online with friends or strangers across any number of game types. Halo is extremely accommodating, a true mainstream game that welcomes the hardest of the hardcore and the casual-est of the casual. At this level of the business, that’s a necessary goal.
Halo 4 is Halo, that’s what I keep coming back to when I collect my thoughts on the game. It is exactly what it is, and if you are already dead set against Halo or if you resent it for being a simple, accessible shooter or for any other reason, it won’t change your mind. But it also won’t give you anything new to hate, because the game is what you make out of it. The product itself is an amazing, enormous, and sometimes ravishing piece of software. The game is almost preternaturally refined, precise, and peerless in its technical execution. But no matter what it all is to you when you put it together in your mind, Halo 4 is Halo- definitively.
What do I think about Persona 4 Arena? Let’s see…I’m a glutton for everything MegaTen, especially the Persona series, and I do love my fighting games. So yeah, you could say that I’m a wee bit excited (ie ten seconds from giggling like a man-child at Disney World). Below, you can see three gameplay videos, plus a behind-the-scenes view of the voice recording process. Enjoy.
Since I cottoned on to the idea that game criticism could learn a thing or two from arts criticism, I’ve inevitably been sucked into the world of games as art. It’s an interesting space: before platforms like Steam and XBLA made it possible for indie developers to create and release something and make a profit there was simply a vast gulf between blockbuster, big-studio AAA titles and artists occasionally dipping their toes into computing. Now that space is gradually becoming filled with games like Journey, Limbo and, of course, Braid.
Having now finally had the chance to play Braid, I’m struck by the fact that it’s almost unquestionably art. There’s so much about it that fits that definition. The visual style is heavily reminiscent of post-impressionist painting, pretty much unique in the video gaming space, and distractingly beautiful as you play through. The snippets of narrative text that flash up as you wander through the gateway to each world are lovingly scripted and surprisingly profound. I have discovered that I end up wanting to re-read them every time I fire up the game and enter a world, and discover new elements of insight on most occasions that I so. The overarching story is clever, filled with metaphors that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, most of which can lead to further meditations on humanity and relationships. I even love the sound, although I understand that was recycled from elsewhere. Whatever definition of art you choose, Braid seems to fit.
However, the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve become unsure as to whether or not it’s actually a game.
Braid very much belongs to the puzzle genre. No problem there, of course, there’s a long and proud history of puzzle games dating back to Q*bert in 1982 and arguably further, most of which were, in my opinion, unspeakably awful. It’s rather more unusual that in Braid the puzzle elements are combined with platform ones but there are still some well-known antecedents such as Lemmings and Wario Land. What’s unique about Braid is its supreme, clinical coldness. The way the story is presented as a series of philosophical observations with no attempt to engage the player emotionally. But most of all the manner in which it presents the player with a series of discrete puzzles that are almost entirely intellectual in nature. Experimenting and working things out are the order of the day here, and in spite of the occasional pixel-perfect jump you’re required to make, physical dexterity, reaction time and manual skill very much take a back seat.
What it reminds me of most are the apparently endless series of small puzzle applications and flash games that people use to while away their office lunch hours, rather than anything you’d be likely to find on the console of a dedicated hobby gamer. More than that, playing Braid feels almost like solving Sudoku, or some other popular pen and paper puzzle format. The exercise is so focused on the brain that you almost start to wonder why you’re bothering to play this sort of thing on a computer when a crossword or nonogram would offer a similar kind of pleasure in a cheaper and rather more convenient format. I get the same feeling playing some European-style board games, where the strategy is often more about making best use of the rules than actually engaging with your fellow gamers, but at least in a board game you’re playing face to face in a social situation. Braid is like a European board game but with even less warmth.
Of course, Braid has this funky time-rewind thing going on that it uses as the basis for most of its puzzles and there’s no way you could do that with pen and paper. And you have to stand back and admire the cleverness of that mechanic, which is not only unusual but leveraged to make you ask yet more questions about the game itself and the wider world which you inhabit. But really that’s pretty flimsy reasoning because while that particular approach to puzzle construction might only be doable in a video game, the basic prerequisite, which is that you think your way through every stage of the game instead of running, jumping and gunning through large parts of it as is the norm, didn’t require the time-rewind. A good puzzle designer could have built Braid as a standard platformer and still made it interesting, still made it deeply philosophical and still filled it with fiendishly intractable puzzles. No matter that it happens to have a clever gimmick, we’re still back to pen and paper logic puzzles.
So how about that allusion and metaphor rich story that overarches the whole thing then? The ability to participate directly as the central protagonist in a thrilling tale is one of the central lures of video gaming, and has be used to create unique circumstances and surprises in games like Silent Hill 2 and Knight of the Old Republic. Could Braid perhaps earn its video gaming credentials there? Well, no. The narrative is immensely clever, but it’s mainly text-based and offers little you couldn’t get from a novel or a film. Indeed I was reminded a little of Time’s Arrow on more than one occasion whilst playing.
There are antecedents in terms of games that engage the player primarily intellectually rather than physically though. Computer wargames are the poster child here, although the wider world of strategy games offers other candidates, and no-one would suggest those weren’t video games. But again, Braid is different. All the computer strategy games that I can think of either utilised the computer to do something you couldn’t do in a physical format, or had heavy elements of hidden information and randomness that forced the player to make moves based on intuition as well as intellect. Often these were one and the same thing, such as a fog of war effect, or complex calculation for hit and damage. By contrast in Braid everything is open for the player to see, and almost all the puzzles are trials of pure logic and deduction.
And yet, for all the criticisms I’m here levelling at the game, for all that it remains remote and unengaging, I’m very impressed by it, perhaps more as a concept than as a game. It’s eaten many hours of my time none of which, and this is an astonishing rarity for a video game, feel like they’ve been wasted, although some of them don’t feel like they were actually very much fun. And ultimately the argument I’m pushing here, which is that it isn’t really a video game at all, leads to an even more interesting question and conclusion. Namely, that if it isn’t a video game, what is it? And I have no idea what you’d name it, but it is all of the things I’ve compared it to, rolled into one. A pen and paper puzzle, a (short) novel, a philosophical exercise and a piece of visual art. And in that amalgamation, finally, is our vindication and our answer: nothing other than a video game could successfully unite such disparate elements. And in doing so, Braid, like many of the other indie-art games that came after it have finally started the long-overdue process of pushing the envelope of what a game can be. Whatever you think of Braid, and it’s creator Jon Blow, it deserves acclaim for that feat alone.