What’s Wrong With Games

This article/rant was, again, was originally written for Uproar Comics. Continuing my quest to have some kind of content on my blog now and then.

Video Game Characters

Media and somewhat brainless parents alike are fond of blaming computer games (I don’t the term video games – it’s too American) for…well, just about everything. If you haven’t heard arguments about how a game caused someone to go and shoot people, or fly into a rage and kill their family, then you’ve probably been residing beneath a rock for many years. The mildest argument is that games reduce people’s IQ, and they’re for children, so if you’re an adult and play games, you should grow up and get out more.

Let’s take the first part. A lot of violence and killing has been attributed to games. Mostly, I think it’s fair to say, by the atrociously incompetent and biased Fox News. Fox News is quite well known for exaggerating, misleading and outright lying. They bring in ‘experts’ who aren’t experts in anything relevant to their news story.

An easy, well known example of Fox’s hate-spewing is when they set their sights on Mass Effect. It was a long time ago now, but still stands up as a good example of biased reporting from the media. The following could be applied, with a few names and terms changed slightly, to almost any news story about a game.

Faux News

The news report/discussion started out by showing a short trailer for the game. As the trailer came to an end, their headline and subtitle popped up. “SE”XBOX. That was the headline, ‘cleverly’ placed quotes included. Followed by ‘New Video Game Shows Full Digital Nudity And Sex’.

Now, for anyone who played the game, it was immediately apparent that Fox either had gone into this without doing any research whatsoever or had simply decided to outright lie. For those who haven’t played, there is one scene in the game where, if you have chosen to pursue a romantic relationship with one of your companions, it results in a bedroom scene. The scene consists of a brief montage, lasting about a minute and then fading to black. If you count seeing a person’s back as nudity, then the subtitle is spot on. To watch the scene in question, click here.

It then cut to the reporter – and frankly, with Fox, you have to use the term loosely – already with her nose turned up as though she’d just watched someone kick a puppy. She went on to claim that the game contains graphic sex, where the player gets to decide what happens, ‘If you know what I mean’. Well, actually, she didn’t know what she meant.

From here, it pretty much went downhill. Lies, a lack of understanding, a lack of simple common sense, a fake ‘expert’ who knew absolutely nothing about games (a ‘psychology specialist’ and author), and a dedication to shutting down the one person who was there on the side of games. That person was Geoff Keighley, fairly well known in the industry as a game journalist and presenter.

They claimed that the game was played by adolescent males, who were being taught to see women as objects – ignoring, naturally, the fact that the game could be played as a male or female and that the relationship is an entirely optional outcome of an entirely optional, genuine relationship.

Of course, the first thing Geoff Keighley asked the ‘expert’ is whether or not she’d ever played the game. She answered no, with a laugh, as though it were obvious. Well, actually it is obvious, from each word that comes out of her mouth. That kind of shows the level the media are working at when reporting on games, doesn’t it? The reporter hadn’t played the game and even the ‘expert’ they brought on to talk about it hadn’t played the game. This style of ‘reporting’ is repeated again and again, not just by Fox – although they certainly seem to have it in for games. I think games may have run over their dog once.

Halfway through the report, the reporter said goodbye to Geoff Keighley, after talking over him and allowing the ‘expert’ to be incredibly condescending and spew more lies. She then turned to a panel of people, all of whom were, of course, fully against games (and fully ignorant of them). ‘Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas’, one of them called the game. They seem horrified at the idea that they might have to be involved in their child’s life, by actually looking at the box to see the rating! How awful for them! You don’t have to do that with films or TV, do you? You don’t have children to look after them responsibly!

That is just one example, old yet somehow fresh and current. Actually, after that, the Fox ‘expert’ had to issue an apology, admitting that before the show she’d simply asked someone else what they had heard about the game.

The sad thing is that people – parents mostly – who know nothing about games, don’t know any better than to listen to these reports. The fact that the words ‘expert’ or ‘specialist’ are used when they bring people on to attack games makes them think that they should listen, not even considering how the person’s expertise is in a field entirely unrelated to games.

5000 years of gaming

Games have been called murder simulators, sex simulators, they’ve been referred to as training devices. After a school shooting in 2009, the (old) game Counter-Strike was blamed. The shooter supposedly ‘enjoyed the game’, and they claimed that he used it to train to shoot people. They said he was dressed like the characters in the game. In reality, he was wearing black. That’s their idea of dressing like the characters. Clearly they’ve never been to a convention and seen cosplay.

How does one go about using a game to train in firearms proficiency anyway? Are real guns controlled by an Xbox controller? A Playstation controller? A Wii remote? When I’m playing a game, do I get the same recoil from the controller as I would from a gun? You can’t use a game to train like that.

There was a story about a year ago about how a man killed his baby daughter because she knocked over his Xbox. Is that because of games? Or is it because he was on hour 6 of a gaming session, because he was a moron? Because he was scared he didn’t have the money to pay back his brother for a broken console? Is it because he was broken in the head?

The baby had signs of a broken arm, suffered weeks before she died. The parents had a history of neglecting the child. Even the killer’s comments in court showed there’s something wrong with him. Sociopath, psychopath…I’m not a doctor.

FarmvilleSo do we think that it’s fair to say that the kind of people who would commit such violence would do so with or without games? Those who snap over a game would snap over bumping their arm on a door, or burning their mouth on a hot coffee. I don’t think Hitler played Call of Duty. I don’t think Genghis Khan played Counter-Strike. Games are just the newest scapegoat for a sick and violent species.

Similar things were said for television. The last thing was comic books. When comic books were new, they were an evil blight on children. According to ‘studies’, one particular comic book taught ‘sadistic tendencies in kids’. That comic was Superman. The symbol of hope. The boy scout, who does no wrong.

Japan is perhaps the world’s biggest consumer of games. The Japanese, in broad generalising terms, can’t get enough of them. And yet it has a relatively low crime rate per capita. Far lower than that of America. Recent statistics put the murder rate at 1.02 compared to America’s 5. Murders with firearms are at 47 compared to America’s 9,369. Total crimes is listed as 2.85 million compared to America’s 11.88 million.

But that must be because games have lowered Japan’s IQ so much that they don’t know how to leave the house to commit crimes, right? Because games make us so stupid. Except that tests have shown that games improve cognitive flexibility. They encourage creative problem solving and ‘thinking outside the box’. They improve reflexes and reaction time. They improve the capacity for learning.

Level Up

Now compare that to TV. Tell me how gamers are lazy. Explain how it’s better to sit on your sofa in front of a TV, letting it all just wash over you, not having to think for a moment, just staring at it for hours. That’s far better than a game where you have to think about how to proceed, solve problems and puzzles, engage in and push forward a storyline. Right?

And as for ‘Aren’t you a little old to be playing games?’, perhaps the answer should be ‘Aren’t you a little too intelligent to spew disproved, old-fashioned nonsense?’ Statistics show that, in America (keeping with a large country), the highest percentage of gamers are over 36 years old. The average age of gamers is 30. And in case you’re wondering, the myth about it only being ‘for boys’ is dispelled by the 45% of female gamers.

It’s so immature to enjoy interactive storytelling, isn’t it?

So the next time someone suggests that games promote violence, or are for children, you can gently suggest that they take ten seconds to look up the facts.

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The Galaxy Needs KOTOR III

It’s not the first time I’ve written about it, nor will it be the last! This article was originally written for Uproar Comics.

Knights of the Old Republic

A long time ago, not too far far from here, I picked up a gaming magazine of long forgotten origin. This was before I had decent internet or knew how much content I could find therein. Within the glossy pages that made a nasty creaky, squeaky noise against my thumbnail, I saw a Jedi. The Jedi was fighting another Jedi. There was a yellow lightsaber and a red lightsaber. It was a Star Wars game! Oh, but it was an role-playing game. And it was set in the Old Republic, not even the time we’d seen in the films. Never mind then: it would be a bit rubbish. The graphics weren’t even that great.

At the time, I hadn’t played many RPGs, and my gaming knowledge was pretty much limited to things like Half-Life, Doom and Unreal Tournament. And, of course, Jedi Knight 2! The idea of turn-based combat sounded incredibly boring, as did wandering about picking things up and talking to people. If I’m going to play a Star Wars game, I want to be going about cutting people’s limbs off and Force throwing them off ledges, not having a conversation.

So I didn’t buy it when it came out. The only game I knew the developer, BioWare, from was Baldur’s gate. As brilliant as that top-down fantasy game was, I couldn’t see how it could properly translate to a 3rd person Star Wars game and be in any way exciting.

As time went on, I forgot about it. I think it wasn’t until the following year, coming up to Christmas, that I heard about it again. My dad mentioned it a few times, asking if I’d played it yet and saying it had very good reviews, etc. But I still wasn’t interested.

Then Christmas came. I opened my present from my dad, and there was a plastic box with some bald man, a big-headed woman and a General-Akbar-a-like staring at me. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Goddamn it.

I pretended to be pleased and grateful, even though I’d said multiple times that I wasn’t interested in the game. I went and installed it on his PC and started it up. First things first, I had to choose to be male or female. Scoundrel, Scout or Soldier. Then I chose a face from a handful of presets. Next, I had to assign attribute points and choose ‘feats’. Bored already. Name? When the hell do I get to play?!

Finally, the music burst to life and the yellow text started to crawl away from me. At least it felt like Star Wars.

KOTOR - Reven and Malak

For the next eight hours or so, I was glued to the computer. I fought my way off a besieged spaceship, falling out of orbit. I rescued an ungrateful Jedi. I listened to my companion’s whining about his family. And eventually, I became a Jedi myself! Or it felt like it was me, anyway, and not the character.

The combat, while pretty simple, allowed me to give some commands and sit back to watch the fight. I got to dress my character how I wanted, use whatever kind of weapon I wanted, and best of all, talk to people how I wanted. I got to have conversations with my companions and get to know them, almost as though they were real people.

The story was a typically simple Star Wars story. Big, bad Lord Malak is trying to crush the Republic and you’re the only one who can stop him, with the help of your trusty companions.

The game is perhaps most famous, though, for its big twist. Perhaps a little more than 3/4 of the way through the game, some information is revealed to you, which left most of us open-mouthed. I probably shouldn’t overstate the quality of the twist by comparing it to that of The Sixth Sense, but to this day it’s often voted as gaming’s best twist. It’s not the twist itself so much as the fact that you don’t see it coming until the very moment the game wants you to. Even while Malak mocks you for not knowing, you’re trying to work out what it might be.

That is, in any medium, the best kind of twist. Not only do you not see it coming, but when you replay the game, you can’t for the life of you see how you didn’t see it coming. It’s clear as day. They practically spell it out for you. And yet we were all shocked when it was revealed. Kind of like The Sixth Sense…

This was my first experience of an RPG of this kind, and it couldn’t have been a better game. It made me feel like I was that character – even though he wasn’t voiced – and it made me want to be a Jedi! It’s probably just as well that I’d finished my first book before I played the game, or else it may have turned out to be a Star Wars clone.

I must have played KOTOR about 20 times over the next year, seeing how different the conversations would be if I played a woman, seeing how the game and story changed if I fell to the Dark Side, and stopping every now and then to check if my own Force powers were working yet. So far, they haven’t come to be, but I have faith…

KOTOR alignment

Then, just over a year after KOTOR was released, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords came out. I knew it was going to be even bigger and better than the first, and I was prepared to have the longing for my own galactic adventure rekindled!

Unfortunately, however, KOTOR 2 was developed by Obsidian Entertainment. They were to KOTOR what Treyarch was to Call of Duty, or Warner Brothers Montreal was to Batman Arkham [XYZ]. They thoroughly screwed that intergalactic pooch.

Bugs galore, framerate issues, missing content, plot holes, one completely pointless villain (out of three). What could have been a good twist – the reveal of who the real enemy was – didn’t come as any surprise, because you’re basically told that this character is bad within the first few hours. But perhaps that was for the best. I can’t blame Obsidian for not wanting to try to follow the original’s twist.

The thing I couldn’t forgive KOTOR 2 for as I played through it the first couple of times was, as well as an unnecessarily convoluted storyline, the fact that they decided to alter the story of the first game, albeit only slightly. They basically told us that your character in the first game did what he did with motives unknown to us in that game. They even went so far as to practically ignore the fact that my character had been a Jedi. They were quite intent on making it canon that he’d fallen to the Dark Side. Now, that may have suited their own storyline better than him being a Jedi, but I didn’t like them saying that my hundreds of hours of play was kind of irrelevant.

The other problem was that the game was barely finished. In fact, it wasn’t finished. Whole planets were missing from the released product. One of your companions, the much-loved droid HK-47, was missing his side quest. This resulted in gaping plot holes and loose ends.

That wasn’t Obsidian’s fault, though, as LucasArts rushed them and forced them to release the game before it was ready. They were given very little time to make a very big, complex game. Despite this, many people have come round to the idea that KOTOR 2 is actually the better game. I’ll admit that the story, while convoluted, is probably better and more in-depth. It did an even better job of making you feel like a Jedi, albeit an outcast, exiled one. There were several parts of the story where Force powers actually had a place outside of combat – such as using the Force to control your breath while the room is flooded with poison gas. All these things were an improvement over the first game, but I just can’t bring myself to count it above the original. Although, you did get to wear proper Jedi robes in it, which was an unforgivable omission in the first.

But then came…nothing. No more Star Wars. BioWare moved on to other things, claiming not to like making sequels. Of course Dragon Age 2, with 3 upcoming, and the Mass Effect trilogy, with 4 upcoming, don’t count. They don’t like to make sequels. But is that a good thing?

Mass Effect 2 was okay. It was nothing special and I didn’t like how much they changed it from the first, which is still just under KOTOR on my list of all-time favourite games. It was just padding to make Mass Effect a trilogy, really. It didn’t need to exist. The first Dragon Age is probably third on my list of all-time favourite games, but DA2…oh dear. From reused areas, to an overall claustrophobic play area, to magical nuclear bombs, it was pretty damn bad. Then came Mass Effect 3. Now, I could quite literally rant about ME3 for hours – and I have. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say it was an absolutely abysmal, spit-in-fans’-faces atrocity. And I don’t just mean the controversial ending. From start to finish, it was piss-poor and, frankly, kind of disrespectful.

So do I really want BioWare to make KOTOR 3? Yes. They’ve fallen very far from their previous greatness: Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect. The time that I didn’t even have to think about whether I would buy a BioWare game or not has long passed. But I don’t give a flying f***. It’s Star Wars. It’s Knights of the Old Republic, goddamn it. I need it! Sure, they’d probably simplify the combat and make it mindless button mashing, like DA2, but I don’t really mind that. In fact, I later came to quite like that button mashing. I just want to feel like a Jedi again.

Is it likely? No. I told myself and others that if 2014’s E3 didn’t bring news of Knights of the Old Republic III, then it would probably never happen. After all, the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with the Star Wars hype kicking in once again. But, of course, E3 brought ‘news’ – if you can call it that – of Mass Effect 4 instead, as did E3 2015. It seems BioWare is mastering the art of ignoring their fans desperate pleas and giving everyone what they don’t want instead.

They did make The Old Republic, an MMO that no one really wanted. And when they happily told fans that we didn’t need KOTOR 3 because TOR was essentially KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, we knew that our hopes and dreams were doomed. And that BioWare had become delusional f***king idiots.

Lightsaber

Help Us, Obsidian; You’re Our Only Hope

But that’s okay, because the fans aren’t alone. Obsidian Entertainment wants KOTOR 3 just as much as we do. In fact, to this day, more than ten years on, they are still trying to get permission to make it. They nearly did make it. The series was meant to be a trilogy, as the so-called ‘ending’ of KOTOR 2 suggested. And the closing chapter of that trilogy was in pre-production at Obsidian, but LucasArts never gave it the green light. Even Obsidian don’t seem to know why.

But even now, Obsidian are pitching a new Star Wars RPG (or they were – I haven’t heard a thing about it since). It’s not KOTOR 3; it’s set within the timeline of the films. But it is Star Wars, and it is an RPG. So it may not be the Star Wars RPG that we deserve, but it may be the one we need right now. I don’t know why no one has thought that a sequel to two of the most popular and successful games of all time could probably do quite well, but never mind. Not all hope is lost. Even if it will be an Obsidian game.

I don’t have a lot of faith in Obsidian, but after playing a few of their games, I’ve come to the conclusion that they actually have pretty good writers. They have some good ideas for gameplay and systems. They just can’t program. And they can’t seem to get on with each other all that well. The latter is a problem, but they aren’t alone in their inability to program. Look at Bethesda. I’m not even sure their programmers know Dark Basic, let alone all the coding they need to know for AAA games. And yet theirs are some of the most popular and loved games out there: Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout, most famously.

So all is not lost yet. Let’s pray you can help us, Obsidian; you’re our only hope.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman Arkham Knight

I was going to write a blog post about how I don’t think it’s okay for the Ask EL James hashtag to have been hijacked by people just wanting to be abusive, but then I decided, ‘nah, I’ll write about Batman’.

Everyone is aware that I like games and I like superheroes, so it’s no surprise that I like games about superheroes. The best of these games (not that there are that many) is the Arkham series from developer Rocksteady. There is also the one that the publisher made themselves with their own development studio, but that was a bit rubbish, so we tend not to mention it. But I will mention it. Later.

First, we had Arkham Asylum, which took the gaming world by storm, appearing out of the blue from a little known studio with only one other game under their belt. It had Kevin Conroy, THE voice of Batman; it had Mark Hamill, THE voice of Joker; it had you play as the goddamn Batman (I don’t know why I enjoy quoting that so much). It wasn’t just the best superhero game ever made, it was one of the best games. It had the comic book, animated series feel about it, but was darker and grittier than anything a lot of people had seen from the franchise.

Next came Arkham City, where Batman took to the…well, the city. Rather than being cooped up in the Asylum, he was free to exercise his cape and glide about a large portion of Gotham. Fears that it wouldn’t be able to match up to the original were quickly allayed as it turned out to be even better than the first.

So the news that Rocksteady’s third Arkham game would also be their last was bittersweet. Although it would mean no more Batman from the studio who handled him so well, it also meant that the series was sure to go out with a bang (and that something very exciting might come next). Okay, hearing that Scarecrow would be the main villain of the game was a little bizarre, but with him would come a brand new villain – one that had been created alongside DC Comics themselves: the Arkham Knight.

This mysterious new villain seemed to have styled himself after Batman and looked as though he would be the ultimate match for the Dark Knight. Early trailers showed the Arkham Knight getting the upper hand in fights with Batman, and he seemed to have similar tricks and gadgets. We were all sure it was going to be good.

Well, the short version is: it wasn’t good. In my opinion, anyway.

The long version can’t really be put across without spoilers, so I’ll be sure to mention when they’re coming and start with the non-spoilers. As usual, there is no real structure to my ramblings, so let’s just start with, uhh…

The Batmobile

Batmobile

This looked like a promising addition to the series. The Batmobile is an iconic part of Batman’s arsenal, and so far we had only seen it in a few cutscenes in the other games (or game – I can’t remember if it was in City). Arkham Knight was going to take place in a bigger area than City and so Rocksteady were able to bring in the car. Car/tank, that is. The new Batmobile is one designed for this war that Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight have waged on Batman, and it transforms from car to tank in a fancy second. All the better to deal with those pesky drones driving and flying about (drones – i.e. conveniently unmanned so that Batman can blow them up).

My immediate thought was that the Riddler challenges that were sure to reprise their place in the game would be Batmobile-heavy. I was right. In fact, the entire game is Batmobile-heavy. To the point that several boss fights take place purely between your tank and theirs. Finish enough of the side missions and a new, unexpected villain appears to challenge you. One who is so sure of his skills, he would certainly give you a good fight and definitely wouldn’t cower inside a…why is he in that giant tank?

Yes, taking the place of the unique and varied boss fights is driving about trying to get behind powerful tanks to shoot their weak points, then doing pretty much the same on the boss’ tank. Except that each shot to the boss’ tank has to be followed by driving away very fast because it can somehow keep up with your jet fighter on wheels.

And that’s it. That accounts for most of the boss fights. There are two sneaky, ‘predator’ sections later on against two villains, but as far as I can recall, that’s it. Well, there is the Riddler fight too, but you’re not really fighting him in it. But THAT’S it.

It felt like Rocksteady spent so much time with the Batmobile that they couldn’t bear the thought of it being underused by players, so they forced us to use it over and over and over. In very uninteresting ways. Either that or they spent so much time on it they forgot they had to make the rest of the game.

It shows just how important it was to them that it gets damaged and worn over time, but Batman doesn’t. In the other games, his suit and cape get more ripped as the game goes on, they get dirty, his face gets bruised and cut. Not so in Arkham Knight. Not until the last 5% or so of the story.

I also can’t help but feel it’s a little stupid that you can drive into people, but it’s okay because they’re tased. Yes, tased by the front of a tank driving into them at 100mph. They’ll be perfectly fine. Even though Batman just reversed back over their unconscious bodies multiple times.

Disappearing Acts

Not too far into the story, something happens that causes Commissioner Gordon to get all stroppy with Batman and, at the time he needs the Dark Knight most, tells him to stay the hell away from his family. Makes sense. What also makes sense is that Gordon then disappears for most of the rest of the game. Only in the last two sections of the game does he reappear, with no sign of the temper tantrum he threw earlier.

Something similar could be said of other supporting characters. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman all make an appearance and are all only in very small sections of the game. Robin has an excuse for most of his absence, but Nightwing is out there in the city, yet only appears to help beat up Penguin’s men and then disappear again. Catwoman is used only as bait. As a damsel in distress. Which I’ll complain about in a minute.

This is war. Batman is being targeted by an army. Where the hell are his allies? He had more help in Arkham City.

Underwhelming Villains

Scarecrow

Scarecrow was an odd choice. It was weird from the start. He’s not one of the more menacing villains in the Batman universe, is he? Maybe Rocksteady wanted to change that. Maybe they were just cashing in on how much people liked the Scarecrow fear-toxin-induced sections in Arkham Asylum. Who knows. They did make him a little more unpleasant this time, but they also made him a lot more sane than he seems to be in anything else – including Asylum. He has a very clear plan, a very clear goal and, it seems, a very clear mind.

But Scarecrow isn’t really the main villain, is he? Or is he? I can’t tell. I thought he was more of a backdrop for the Arkham Knight, who is working for him, but then the Knight seems to take the place as the backdrop. I think the real villain is the demon in Batman’s head. I’ll rant more about the Arkham Knight himself later.

[Potential mild spoilers here] Other villains were in the game – Two-Face, Penguin, Harley Quinn, Firefly, etc. – but they were very badly used. And under-used. They were were the result of completing some side missions. Stop a few bank robberies and Two-Face will show to take you down. There’s not even a boss fight: just take out his men and then do the same for him, just like any other enemy. Destroy enough of Penguin’s weapons caches with Nightwing and he’ll show (in a pretty ridiculous way, I might add) to teach you a lesson. Press one button and he’ll be the next one you’re driving to GCPD. It’s pretty pathetic.

Riddler is both the best and the worst of these side-villains. The others are minding their own business until Batman involves himself, but Riddler comes after Batman, just like he does in the other games. Except this time, he has built a very elaborate series of underground race tracks. Because those count as riddles, right? That’s the way to show that he’s smarter than Batman: make him drive the Batmobile round and round irritating courses. But at least there’s some form of boss fight with him…kind of.

Be The Batman

That’s how the game was marketed. It was probably how the other games were marketed too, actually, but whatever. The idea of Arkham Knight was that it was going to be the ‘ultimate Batman game/experience’. Yet, no Batcave, no meetups with Alfred for sage advice, no well-paced, meaningful encounters with other series characters. In fact, the whole game seems rushed. Not in the sense that they rushed to get it made, but that the player is rushed to get to the end. And not in a sense of urgency kind of way. Just in a ‘we can’t really be bothered to write anything much, so go and beat up the next person’ kind of way.

I think the biggest problem of all is down to…

No Paul Dini?!

Paul Dini was a writer for Batman: The Animated Series – the cartoon that is, to this day, considered one of the best animated series ever made. And for good reason. It was dark and scary, despite being for children, and really got the world and atmosphere of Batman across perfectly in those 20 minutes or so.

Batman Nightwing and Robin

Paul Dini knows Batman. He knows the supporting characters. He knows the world. He knows how to write! The same, it seems, cannot be said for the writers of Arkham Knight. According to Dini himself, he asked Warner Interactive (the publisher) about doing the third game and was told that they might not be looking so much to freelance writers for the next game. He took it to mean that if he had anything else interesting coming his way, he should take it. It sounds, then, like someone – whether Warner or Rocksteady – had already decided that they didn’t need to hire Dini for the last game. And what a massive mistake that was.

The writers of Arkham Knight actually wrote the other two games alongside Dini. It seems from this one though that Dini did all the heavy lifting. The writing here is incredibly weak, unsatisfying, nonsensical and lacking in substance and quantity. It feels like they wrote a game half the length of the game they actually made. It’s not just the writing, though; the directing is off a lot of the time. But then, the director is also one of the writers.

Even from the start, something felt off (I only later discovered that Dini hadn’t written it). The game just kind of…is happening. It doesn’t seem to start – you’re just playing. Things happen without explanation, characters know things that they have no reason to know. For [spoilerific] example, Scarecrow kidnaps Oracle at one point, but he doesn’t actually tell Batman she’s been kidnapped. He says ‘Let me go or she dies.’ A quick call to Oracle shows that she is still okay until the feed cuts off with her screaming. Which part of that says ‘kidnap’? Yet Batman starts talking about her having been kidnapped. Not to mention that atrocious writing where Oracle ignores Batman telling her to get out. She just tells him no one knows she’s there. What a moron! She’s Batgirl. She’s Oracle. She’s been Batman’s friend for a long time. She should not be so incredibly stupid and she should know better than most that when Batman shouts at you to ‘get out now’, you get the absolute hell out!

In short, the game was hit badly by Paul Dini’s absence.

Sexism

Yes, when I noticed something on Google about the game’s sexist treatment of women, I rolled my eyes and assumed it was probably Anita whatsherface spewing more hate and lies at anything that will get attention for her. But the more I played, the more I began to agree. ‘Sexism’ might be too strong a term for it – one that people love to use as much as possible for the smallest things, thus diluting it – but it’s certainly bad use of female characters. There are only three female characters of note in the game: Oracle/Barbara Gordon, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn. Harley barely counts, because she’s in it for a very short time. That said, the DLC that gives you 10 minutes playing as her does have her telling Penguin where to stick his umbrella more than once, so that’s…something, I suppose.

[Mild Spoilers] Catwoman is so badly used it’s almost laughable. She is there for no other reason than some weak justification for starting the Riddler’s challenges. He has taken her captive and will detonate a bomb collar around her neck if you don’t complete his challenges and help her get a series of keys to deactivate said collar. So she sits there while her Dark Knight in dull spandex armour goes off, heroically…driving his car round and round underground racetracks.

[Still Mild Spoilers] She does at least help you beat up some of Riddler’s robots, but even her part in some of the ‘riddles’ is as helper. Then as soon as you’ve freed her, she disappears. She comes back to help fight him at the end, but that’s it. Even her dialogue isn’t what it could have been. She tells Batman to be careful and thanks him at one point I think (in a roundabout way at least), which just doesn’t fit her character.

Oracle

[BIG Spoilers] Oracle is the worst though. I already mentioned one part of her awful writing. But even that bit goes a little beyond just bad writing. It’s making her the stereotypical helpless, oblivious female character who doesn’t realise the danger even though it’s being practically spelled out for her. Then, of course, getting herself hurt/killed/kidnapped/whatever. It’s the moronic ‘You’re in danger, you have to run!’, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m fine’ kind of nonsense trope. But it gets so much worse.

[Still BIG spoilers] Let’s not forget that Oracle – aka Barbara Gordon – was Batgirl until Joker shot her through the spine. So to have her kidnapped so easily and then dragged away without a fight is just ridiculous. Yes, she’s in a wheelchair. So the hell what? The character of Oracle has been, as far as I’m aware, something of an inspiration to comic book readers with disabilities. Being wheelchair-bound might have changed her life, but it didn’t destroy her. It put an end to the Batgirl alter ego, but gave birth to Oracle: the leader, among other vital roles, of her own team of superheroes. She makes people pay time and again for underestimating her either for being a girl or for being in a wheelchair. Rocksteady decided to brush that aside and make her just another damsel in distress, whimpering and screaming as she’s taken away.

[Still BIG spoilers] The best she could do while being taken away was cause the car to crash, giving her a chance to leave a clue for Batman. That’s it. No doubt had Rocksteady decided to show us that from inside the car, it would have involved her slapping and scratching the driver ‘like a girl’. But the worst was still to come. When Batman finally caught up with her, [Seriously BIG, BIG spoiler!] Scarecrow releases his fear toxin to make her fear Batman. In order to stop him ‘getting her’, she shoots herself in the head. Now, [Even bigger more seriously BIG spoiler!] I know that later on, it’s revealed that it was actually Batman who was under the influence of the toxin, and she didn’t shoot herself, but that happens so much later that the player is left with that impression of an incredibly weak and pathetic version of Oracle ingrained in their mind. Not to mention Batman should have known she wouldn’t behave like that.

The Arkham Knight

The Arkham Knight

I’m running out of steam, so let’s talk/ramble/rant about the biggest let down. The Arkham Knight is a ludicrously weak villain. From my first encounter with him, I was underwhelmed. Rather than the anti-Batman that I expected from the trailers, he just sounded like a whining, spoilt brat. He didn’t really get the upper hand on Batman, save for one time that had no repercussions at all. For the majority of the game, he just became one of those voices on the other end of the enemies’ earpieces that get on your nerves quite quickly, always throwing insults and empty threats at you – oh, they’re going to kill me this time, just like the last five times you told me that? He was a pitiful, disappointing character as the Arkham Knight and it only got worse once his helmet came off.

I wrote an article about who the Arkham Knight could be. My favourite idea was that he was actually Batman himself. The Dark Knight’s worst fears realised – an evil version of himself. The idea of Scarecrow’s fear toxin creating the villain was an intriguing one, but the moment the two interacted, it was obvious my already far-fetch idea was wrong.

[The BIGGEST spoilers!] I did, accidentally, mention the true identity though. It turns out that the Arkham Knight is none other than Robin number 2, Jason Todd. Which…is absolutely ludicrous. First, there was no mention of Todd in either of the other two games, even though Rocksteady said they had laid down their plans for the entire trilogy from the start. Second, and most important, Jason Todd is already Red Hood! I dismissed the idea as ridiculous, not only for this fact, but for the fact that Red Hood would feature in DLC for the game.

[Still the BIGGEST spoilers] Rocksteady did a stupid twisty thing, where this is kind of Red Hood’s origin story. He comes back as the Arkham Knight (thanks to Joker brainwashing him, rather than killing him), and then goes on to become Red Hood – because Batman talks to him for 10 seconds. It’s insanely stupid and weak. And if I hadn’t been so sure that Rocksteady wouldn’t be that stupid, it would have been blatantly obvious that it was Jason Todd. Not only from all that the Knight knew, but from the fact that Batman keeps seeing flashbacks of Todd in his mind.

The End

Not the end of the article/rant, sorry. The end of the game. I won’t even bother going into detail. I’ll just say it is absolutely atrocious and mildly insulting. There’s not even any proper closure to it, and it even gives rise to questions. Worst of all, it pretty well destroys any chance of an eventual Justice League game, which a lot of players were hoping was the long term goal. And why didn’t Superman have a cameo?!

The Good Bits

Naturally, it wasn’t all rubbish. Just most of it. The switching between characters mid-fight was pretty good, though kind of pointless at the same time. I think they just needed to add new features. The Batmobile was a good addition, just far too heavily featured. The fear takedowns were also very good but, again, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to put them to good use.

[Joint BIGGEST spoiler!] The best thing of all though, was the Joker. Yes, the Joker is dead, but he also lives on in Batman’s mind. A combination of the tainted blood Joker injected him with in City and the fear toxin. Although it gets a bit much at times, his scenes are mostly pretty good. And while I thought the series was over-saturated with Joker, I found myself not minding the way he was in this game. Again he was kind of the main villain, but in a far more interesting way: trying to take over Batman, trying to make him kill.

So, although I really don’t understand how it got so many 10/10s (I think I’d probably give it a 7 at the most), at the end of the day, you get to glide about being vengeance. Being the night. Being Batman.

Batman

No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky splashscreen

Science fiction is arguably the most freeing genre to write in. Almost any other genre can be slotted into it, and the range of hard to soft sci-fi means a writer/director/artist can do just about anything he or she wants. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to write sci-fi (science fantasy, in my case).

No Man’s Sky, an upcoming game from Hello Games, seems set to relight the fire under our imaginations and renew our love of sci-fi. This isn’t the bleak dystopian or post-apocalyptic sci-fi that we’ve got used to lately. This is the colourful, vibrant frontier imagined in so many 70s and 80s sci-fi book covers. Sean Murray, the game’s creator, specifically credits the cover artwork of Chris Foss as inspiring the game. That is his view of what science fiction is.

I was watching when the game was first announced and have been looking forward to it ever since. I wrote an article about it not long after, saying:

During Spike’s VGX 2013 awards – catastrophically co-hosted by Joel McHale – a little game studio called Hello Games showed us a glimpse of their new game, No Man’s Sky. In the midst of games such as The Last Of Us, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto 5, etc., this unknown game – from the tiny group of indie developers of Joe Danger – stole the show.

No Man’s Sky is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. We could buy the game on release day and we’ll have died of old age before we’ve explored every planet in it. A single planet could easily be the size of Earth. Think about that for a moment. Think about a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. It takes a while to wander around them, doesn’t it? No Man’s Sky has Earth-sized planets that you can get out of your spaceship and walk around. You could probably spend a few months exploring every inch of a single planet (on foot). There are billions and billions of these planets. Actually, I think the number is eighteen quintillion, give or take.

This is all made possible by the procedurally generated worlds. To put it simply, it would be impossible for the Hello Games team (initially 4 people) to create the galaxy and planets and lifeforms by hand the way other games are done. The team, therefore, created a system whereby they put in rough blueprints, and then the game takes those blueprints and their constraints to create unique flora and fauna, planets, terrain, weather, etc. The game does this on the fly as you play – it isn’t preloaded. And those constraints ensure that there’s a degree of realism to how and where plants grow, the physiology of animals, and so on. This results in players experiencing worlds that the developers themselves have never seen.

Most importantly to someone like me, it creates a much more real sense of exploration and discovery. You are literally, and quite genuinely, discovering these digital worlds and creatures that no one has come across before. That said, I can imagine the novelty could wear off after a while, especially when you start to recognise elements – ‘oh, look, that mouse has the same head as the dinosaur three planets ago’.

Sean Murray is reluctant to say too much about the lore of the universe and the storyline of the game. Which makes sense – it’s a game about discovery, after all. It sounds, though, like the story will be quite loose and in the background. Rather than having goals, we’ll have reasons to do things. This is where our imaginations will take over.

I’m not too sure what kind of things we’ll be able to do. We can mine, we can shoot things from our spaceship, and we can buy new ships and equipment. Other than that, it’s a bit of a mystery. My biggest concern for the game is that it will rely too much on the player’s sense of wonder and expect us to keep playing for the sense of discovery. As I said, the novelty of this won’t last long, so there needs to be actual gameplay that keeps us playing.

No Man's Sky

That said, we will no doubt end up creating our own storylines, our own narratives to go along with what we’re doing. That will be a fresh take on gaming for some people – we’re used to being told this is who you are, this is what you’re doing, and this is why you’re doing it.

I’ve said before that I hate how most games throw in a story as an excuse for shooting anything that moves, and that proper writers, like Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword, etc.), need to be employed from the start to create an immersive, properly next-gen (now current gen, I suppose) game. I might even write another post ranting about that at some point. But the equal of creating a story-rich game is perhaps to do just what No Man’s Sky seems to be doing: let us create our story.

It won’t surprise regular readers (or as regular as you can be with my infrequent ramblings) to hear that I have my own ideas for games if anyone was foolish enough to give me a game studio. No Man’s Sky is, amongst others, the kind of game I would want to make. Create a rich galaxy, a background story, and let the player do whatever they want. I want to craft a galaxy and its inhabitants and then let the player loose to make their mark on it.

Of course, I would want to go a little further – put more options and whatnot in. That would mean more funding. More funding means more constraints by a publisher. There’s a reason most games these days are so formulaic. The publishers are terrified of putting money into something that isn’t tried and tested. Much better to take a game that sold well, put a new coat of paint on it, change the name slightly, and push it out into the wide world.

Hello Games doesn’t have this problem, because they are indie developers. This is probably the only reason they are able to do what they are doing. Sean Murray worked at EA, so he knows the industry well enough to know to stay away from becoming the industry.

Anyway, there are many articles out there about No Man’s Sky, so there’s not much point in me going on and on. If you’re interested enough to have got to the end of this article, you’ve probably already read some of those other articles.

Suffice to say I am looking forward to become a frontiersman.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age Table

I never expected Inquisition (see what I did?!) to be brilliant. I didn’t expect it to be BioWare back to form. And it wasn’t. But it was pretty good, and in some places very good; it was certainly a big improvement over Dragon Age II.

I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition on release day and have been taking my time with it so that, by the time I embarked upon the final mission, I’d finished all the side quests. I did manage to miss one party member, though, due to not discovering that Orlais has two upper levels until hour 101. I finished it on New Year’s Day.

I’m not entirely sure what to think. I wrote a blog for Uproar about Bioware and mentioned how this game could remake or break the developer. I think, on the whole, it has done them good. They still made some of the same mistakes they did with some of their past games, but mostly they did a good job.

First off, the voice acting was pretty good – nothing special, but good – for all but one character: your own. You choose between one of two male voices when you start – an American one and an English one – and I assume the same goes for female builds. I chose the English one, because American doesn’t sound right in fantasy to me. What a mistake. Flat, boring, unemotional for the most part. When he did put emotion into things, it was all over the place. He’d sound accusing, angry, surprised or confused, when he was meant to be anything but. Mostly, he just sounded like a dimwit – not how you want your Inquisitor to sound. Compared to the very good voicing of Hawke in Dragon Age II, it was a big step back.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game was the world itself. The areas you can travel to are both huge and varied. One of the worst things about Dragon Age II was the blatant reuse of areas, one lesson BioWare clearly learnt well. No one area looks like another, no matter how small, and the environments are varied enough – even the similar ones – that you could tell where in Thedas you’d been put if the game launched you there randomly. The detail in most of these environments is impressive too, given the size. Except the desert. That’s far too big to be so empty.

Dragon Age Dales

The combat is pretty much the same as it was in Dragon Age II, except instead of mashing the attack button, you simply hold down the right trigger and the fighting is done for you. Overall, it’s fine, though the blows just don’t feel like they have the impact that they did in the previous game. You feel more like you’re swinging a fish at the enemy instead of a sword. And the top-down view thing is entirely pointless, at least on easier difficulties.

Then there are the downsides. The AI is terrible, with the party members getting stuck or deciding to stand still and not follow you (which means if you switch to them thinking they’re right behind you, you’re transported miles away and then your previous character is teleported to them). In fights, some of the ranged characters would run right up to enemies to attack them…from range. Given that ranged characters have less defences and lower health, this was quite irritating. Not to mention moronic. But BioWare decided that we didn’t need the detailed character behaviour options that helped make Origins so good. Basically, you can tell a character to do what another does, or do their own thing. The former means that they totally ignore enemies who attack them, and therefore die a lot.

Enemy spawning is very annoying. If you wipe out a group of enemies, don’t look over your shoulder as you walk away, or they’ll have respawned again. That’s if you survived the encounter. Not because the enemies are tough, but because of the glitch that causes your character to run into an enemy and then launch into the sky and plummet back to the ground.

Glitches being another irritant. They are mostly small, and BioWare did fix the worst ones. I missed a lot of what was happening for first several hours because dialogue would often freeze, and I would have to press the skip button so that I wouldn’t be left with someone just staring at me in silence. That of course resulted in me missing lines. When it happened multiple times within a single conversation, I was left clueless.

And what about the lies BioWare told? There were a couple of things they claimed would be in the game – and claimed very close to release – that aren’t. While this is pretty typical of BioWare, that doesn’t make it acceptable. The main thing I remember is them saying how once you liberate a keep, you would decide what kind of keep it should be. You don’t. At all. It doesn’t matter, but it annoys me that BioWare are so changeable and liberal with the truth.

Their claims of all these hard decisions is perhaps the chief example. They say that every time, of course, but usually there are hard choices. They said these would be some of the hardest yet, that there would be no easy or ‘right’ choice. Well…where the hell were they? The hardest choice I had to make was deciding whether I should take Solas or Dorian on missions. The only other thing that was hard was a choice regarding Blackwall, and it seems like both options turn out exactly the same anyway. They used an example in one gameplay video of a village under attack at the same time as Inquisition forces, or something like that. The choice was between helping the Inquisition and helping the village. Nothing like that ever occurs in the game. Ever. This is the culmination of two other games, with the fate of the world in the balance, and there isn’t a single hard choice.

Which reminds me of the video where they showed how, on approaching enemy forces, you could set fire to their boats so that they couldn’t escape. They said there were be things like that throughout. There are not.

There’s no actual danger. There is one point at which your enemy, Corypheus, launches a devastating attack on the Inquisition, but other than that it’s an easy ride. No party members are ever in any danger, where they could be killed off. Again, this is unlike gameplay videos and trailers suggested. Which reminds me of just how many scenes from trailers and gameplay videos never made it into the game. Good scenes. Dramatic scenes. Did BioWare have to decide between delaying the game and cutting a load of it out, and chose the latter? They certainly seem to have bitten off a hell of a lot more than they could chew.

Overall, I’d probably give Dragon Age Inquisition a maximum of 7/10, and I would recommend it. But it suffers from BioWare’s continuing cluelessness. This isn’t the end of my review/rant, but everything from here on will be full of big spoilers.

I used the Keep thing online to make all the choices that I made in Dragon Age Origins and DA2, which weren’t saved to my Origin account for some reason. Most things seemed to make little to no difference, but I wanted to have Alistair in my game, so I chose to have the Hero of Fereldan kill the archdemon, and Alistair rejoined the Wardens. So he was indeed in my Inquisition playthrough, and turned out to be a fairly important part. However, after he played his part, he left to return to the Grey Wardens at their headquarters. I thought that this was to get their help with the whole world ending crisis thing, but apparently not, because he never came back and wasn’t mentioned again until the credits.

Another familiar character to make an appearance is Hawke. This was handled incredibly badly. It was built up to be a big surprise, and yet just as I was about to meet him, the game asked me if I wanted to use Hawke’s default appearance or customise it. That’s like taking someone to a surprise birthday party and then at the door, telling them you hope they like surprise parties! Why the hell didn’t they just do that at the start of the game? And then there’s Hawke’s end. You have to choose between him and Alistair – I suppose that could count as a hard decision, but it makes the most sense that Hawke be the one to die, so it isn’t. And so the hero of Dragon Age II is given a pathetic, badly-animated non-death. He runs at the enemy, and then we just assume he died. Brilliantly handled, as always, BioWare. Because who cares about a character you not only spent tens of hours with, but controlled the whole time?

Then there’s the end. A weaker, more empty and all-round crap ending I haven’t witnessed for a long time. It kind of comes in two parts. First there’s the final fight against Corypheus and his dragon. Morrigan takes on the latter with her new dragon shapeshifting powers…and loses. So much for ‘I can match the dragon’. Then you just chase Corypheus around, hitting him. It’s not even a hard fight. All the dragons in the game were harder. The nightmare demon thing in the Fade was harder. Then after the fight there’s a cutscene of the Inquisitor creating a rift to suck Corypheus into the Fade. It’s not remotely dramatic or climactic. It doesn’t even make sense to me. He wanted to be in the damn fade, and you JUST PUT HIM THERE! I know the suggestion is that he’s dead and not there physically, but… Oh, never mind.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Before this, you’re told that Inquisition forces can’t assist you. They’re on their way back from another fight. So exactly what was the point in building the Inquisition? Really? In reality, all it took to defeat Corypheus was for Morrigan to get her dragon power and the Inquisitor to swing his sword a few times. In the end, the Inquisition just seemed kind of pointless.

So unlike Origins, where there’s a huge battle at the end and all your companions are up to their eyes in it, this (again, the culmination of two games and with the fate of the world in the balance) end with me, a dwarf, a knight, and an elf against an archdemon-a-like and a darkspawn magister god-wannabe. So after you defeat him, suddenly all your other companions appear from nowhere, along with random Inquisition soldiers – including a scout who was the only one there with you when you caught up to Corypheus, AND THEN DISAPPEARED! Oh, yeah, big heroes.

Then part two of the ending is back in Skyhold, where there’s a party. After the Inquisitor stands and stares at people while they applaud. No Cassandra next to him, of course. The other advisers are there, but one of the two that created the Inquisition is down with the unwashed massed. Makes sense. I suspect this is BioWare pretending that they learnt from the atrocity of ME3, and wanted to give closure for the party members. They didn’t. It’s weak, empty and pointless. You basically go between them all to get a few lines of conversation from each. It’s for appearances and nothing more. It’s not even done well. Where are all the characters that you met throughout the game who aren’t companions? Where’s that little dwarf scout? Where’s Dagna? Where’s that mage leader, etc., etc.? Where’s Iron Bull’s company? He made a big deal out of saving their lives, and yet they aren’t there when he turns up at the end to pretend he actually did something to help, and they aren’t there with him celebrating. It’s pathetic.

Then after that, it just…ends. Nothing about the final fight or the ‘end’ actually feels like the end of a game. There’s no aftermath, no picking up the pieces, no drama. You can continue to play after the credits, but there’s nothing new, nothing has changed. It just adds to the empty feeling, especially if you’ve finished all the side missions.

There’s an after credits scene that seems to partially explain something Solas says after Corypheus is defeated, and perhaps sets up Dragon Age 4. It seems he is in fact the Dread Wolf, but I don’t really understand. I thought the Dread Wolf was a trickster who…well, tricked the other elven gods, and yet he seems to be just like we knew Solas to be. And what happens at the end? Does Flemeth/Mythal possess him, or does he kill her, or…what? I suppose it’s meant to be confusing and a tease.

So I think that’s about the end of my ranting. I actually thought less and less of the game as I wrote this, and more things came to me. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of my problems with it, nor indeed the things I liked about it, but it’s long enough already, and it’s hard to properly review a game that lasted 107 hours. It was a good game, but not nearly good enough to make me think BioWare are back on track. I won’t be buying their next game.

Knights of the Old Republic III

More dead than ever?

Knights of the Old Republic

So it seems as though Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 3 is more dead than ever. You may have gathered that from the subheading. A while ago, I wrote a blog for Uproar Comics about why the galaxy needs KOTOR 3, so if you’ve read that you’ll know that this news does not please me one bit.

In a move that shows just how clueless and out of touch BioWare has become, the developer has announced the newest expansion for their underwhelming MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game, duh!), The Old Republic. And it’s pretty much the death knell for KOTOR 3.

SPOILERS for both KOTOR 1 and 2 ahead!

As anyone who has played the first two games will know that the Knights of the Old Republic series follows the Dark Lord Revan. The first game deals with the aftermath of Revan’s rule over the Empire, now in the hands of his second, Darth Malak. Over the course of the game, it is revealed that your player character is, in fact, Revan. He was not defeated by the Jedi, as is the official story, but rather he was so damaged in Malak’s traitorous attack on him that the Jedi were able to create his identity anew.

The player of course chooses whether the Jedi formerly known as Revan will continue to be a Jedi or return to his dark-side ways. No matter the choice made, KOTOR II: The Sith Lords kicks off sometime after Revan has left the galaxy. Although you don’t play as, or even encounter him in KOTOR II, your player character – the Exile – kind of lives in his shadow.

The Exile fought alongside Revan, and we soon learn that the elderly Jedi Master who takes him under her wing taught Revan. She led him down the path of the Dark Side, until he betrayed her. She is, basically, trying to recreate Revan in the Exile.

KOTOR 2 Art

But that’s beside the point. The story of Revan in KOTOR II is that he left the galaxy, sensing something far worse than the Empire out there in dark space. We are led to believe (or perhaps outright told, I forget) that what he senses is the real Sith; the Sith species, not the pretenders in the Empire who call themselves Sith.

So back to the TOR expansion, and the premise is that Revan has returned to the galaxy far, far away. And he arrives at the head of an apocalyptic cult bent on the destruction of both the Republic and the Empire, the Jedi and the Sith.

That could certainly be the true Sith. But no matter what it is, the fact is that if they are continuing/finishing Revan’s story in this not-too-popular MMO, what chance is there of Knights of the Old Republic 3? Very little, it saddens me to think.

It doesn’t make sense to me. First off, wouldn’t now-ish be the perfect time to bring out the game? Star Wars Episode VII is coming out next year, after all. And what better Star Wars game to make than KOTOR 3 – the game that the vast majority of RPG/BioWare fans have wanted since KOTOR II came out in 2005.

On top of that, it seems as though BioWare are working on a Star Wars title. I’m not entirely sure of this, but BioWare’s Wikipedia page lists such a title as in development, and the source they use is a blog post on EA’s website, which does seem to say that. It could be a case of bad wording, but it seems like they’re making a Star Wars game. So, what the hell could they be working on that they think it’s more worthy than a sequel to one of the most popular series ever? That might be an exaggeration.

Yes, I know I wasn’t consistent with my numerals! I don’t care!

For more on BioWare, and their fall from grace, I wrote about that for Uproar too!

The Old Republic

The Last Of Us

I got The Last of Us on the day of release and I’ve been playing it since. I finished it and started again. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it. What I am sure of is that it certainly doesn’t deserve the 10/10s it’s been getting. I’ll try to explain why, without giving away spoilers.

The story is of Joel and Ellie, a forty-something year old man and a fourteen year old girl, basically trying to get from one part of post-apocalyptic America to another. The post-apocalyptic setting is due to a virus that alters people. Some kind of cordyceps-like fungus grows inside them and first makes then extremely violent and aggressive, and then pretty much takes over and deforms them. Basically it’s a fancy zombie apocalypse.

So while crossing America, you have to contend with these infected people as well as normal humans. These come in two forms: soldiers and hunters. Soldiers are obviously…soldiers. There to supposedly keep the peace and keep people safe. But they’re not very pleasant inside the quarantine zones, and are all-out murderous outside them. The hunters are survivors who are not allowed into quarantine zones due to limited space and supplies. Instead, they prey on other survivors and…well, eat them. So, zombies, cannibals and stereotypically evil soldiers.

Joel is a smuggler. That means he smuggles mostly medication and weapons into his quarantine zone in Boston. Thanks to a pre-apocalypse section of gameplay at the beginning (20 years before the main game), we know he has good reason to hate the soldiers. Of course, that’s pretty much the last time he shows it, but it at least helps us see why he might have become a smuggler instead of sitting back and doing nothing like a good citizen. He and his partner, Tess, are tasked with taking fourteen year old Ellie to a group of rebels deep in the city, outside the quarantine zone. And so the story begins.

Ellie

I say story, but there is actually not much of that. The basic premise is very simple, which is ok, but there’s not a lot to beef it up, which isn’t so ok. It is acted very well, and there’s a few sad moments that make you think it’s a deep and meaningful story, but when you stop at the end and think about everything that just happened in the past fifteen hours or so of gameplay, there isn’t that much. If there was more to the relationship between Joel and Ellie, then it wouldn’t be so bad. That relationship is handled pretty well, with them resenting and distrusting each other at first, right up to Joel seemingly seeing her almost as a daughter by the end. However, it progresses a little too fast. There aren’t that many defining moments in their relationship, and those that there are, are brushed over quite quickly. For example, at one point, Ellie has to save Joel’s life by shooting a man. This is the first time she has ever killed, and is momentarily upset and sickened by it, before…being perfectly fine and back to normal. Meanwhile Joel is just annoyed that she didn’t stay put like he told her. Now the suggestion is that he’s angry because he didn’t want her to have to go through that, and doesn’t want her to get hurt and so on, but never does he address the fact that this fourteen year old girl just had to shoot a man in the head at point blank to save the man who is supposed to be protecting her. I know this is part of the bleakness of the setting, that these things happen and there’s not always warm, comforting words to make you feel better, but I didn’t feel it, or a few other parts, were handled that well.

That said, the story and the relationships (both between the two protagonists, and them and the occasional other survivors they team up with) are good and believable. You can’t help spending a lot of the game with a little knot in your stomach because you’re afraid something might happen to Ellie or Joel or even to their new and temporary friends. Ellie is a particularly good character. She’s funny and likable. She can handle herself, but she’s vulnerable and frightened at the same time. You want to help her and protect her, rather than just doing so because the game says you have to.

So overall, the story and the characters aren’t the problem. Even if the whole thing is severely lacking in nuance. There’s some. Ellie’s animations, for example, change over time. First she’s quite guarded, and spends a bit of time with one arm crossed over her, holding the other in that unsure, slightly defensive manner. Then later, when she comes to better know and trust Joel, she’s a lot more open both physically and in character. She tells jokes from a joke book she finds, she teaches herself to whistle, she talks to Joel about how the world used to be, before her time. So if these small problems were the only ones, I would have given the game 9/10. But they’re not.

Runners

The game’s biggest problem, and a big let down, is the combat. Trailers and previews of the game made it seem as though Joel would have a problem handling just one or two enemies at once. That every kill would be a choice, and a moral dilemma. Perhaps that you have to make the choice between killing someone in order to get badly-needed supplies, or leave them and risk running out. But that isn’t so. Not even close. You find yourself in the midst of anywhere from one or two to a dozen enemies at once. If a single one spots you, then like magic, everyone else knows that you’re there, and precisely where you are. I’d hoped that kind of crap was being buried in an unmarked grave as we draw closer to next gen. But apparently not.

If this was only a problem if you were careless and got yourself seen, then I could perhaps forgive it. But that isn’t the case either. On many occasions, you are forced into combat against waves of enemies. In one part of the game, you are actually locked in a room and forced to fight about four or five waves of enemies, before what is basically a mini boss fight. I’d love for someone to explain to me how that has any place in a game like this.

The game is billed as both a survival horror and an action adventure. I don’t think it can, or should, be both. The most tense and exciting parts of the game are when you are pitted against just one or two enemies. For example, there is a part where you get pinned down by a sniper on a street in the suburbs. You have to sneak around the side, avoiding getting shot, while your allies draw his fire. As you reach the house, you suddenly realise that he isn’t firing any more. You get inside, and the house is silent. So where the hell is he? That makes it tense and exciting. The problem is, Naughty Dog (the developer) decided that wasn’t enough. So they threw in about six or seven other enemies for you to fight on your way to the house. To me, that ruined the atmosphere. To me, that kind of thing transforms it from a survival game into a shooter. The best moments of combat were when you were fighting only a small number of enemies. The combat system doesn’t even lend itself to anything else.

Hunted

But the developers don’t seem to know which they wanted it to be either. Joel is strong and pretty fast in cutscenes, but in-game, he’s like an old man. If you hear footsteps running up behind you, then it’s already too late. You can’t turn in time to hit the attacker before he hits you, which can be fatal. You can’t sneak at any kind of speed. There’s no urgency to his sneaking as he gets closer to an enemy he’s going to take out. He can’t roll or slide into cover. Surely, if you’re being shot at, you get to that low wall or crate or whatever cover as quickly as possible? But not Joel.

To me, the game plays as though Naughty Dog were afraid to stray too far from the Uncharted formula. The waves of enemies scenario may work ok for that, but it doesn’t fit in a game like The Last Of Us. It’s a shame they didn’t have the guts to properly pull off the kind of game it was trying to be. One that is more story driven than combat driven, one that deals with occasionally upsetting themes, one that doesn’t fall back on ‘well we can always sit here and shoot everyone’. I think I finished the game with something like 450 kills. 450!

So the combat reduces the game from a very solid 9/10 to an 8/10 at the most.

And then there are the glitches. They aren’t numerous, but they are annoying. Especially in a game from a studio known for highly polished games. The first I noticed was enemies getting stuck. You’d perhaps get spotted by someone, and everyone else, no matter where they are, immediately knows that their friend has seen you. Because they’re telepathic, naturally. But then they run in circles. Or they run ten feet, turn around and run back, only to turn and do the same again. The biggest and most annoying glitch that I came across was with the ‘focused hearing’ system. Holding R2 causes Joel to kneel down and listen hard. Doing so allows him x-ray vision, naturally. So you can see through walls and know exactly where enemies are. Except, about 40% of the way through the game, I started to lose people in my focused hearing. I’d look around using it, see no one, then turn a corner and come face to face with an enemy. This was particularly irritating in the final section, which is all-out action, and I couldn’t see where anyone was until I got shot in the face. I didn’t really mind the focused hearing, but something a little better would have been nice. But most alternatives would have required Naughty Dog to add in decent AI. And then there’s the allies who come into cover with you, and then…push you out of it. Into view of an enemy. Thanks, Naughty Dog. The game wasn’t hard enough, so I’m glad you added that in, despite the fact that you thought it was ok to make Joel’s allies completely invisible to enemies. Ok, perhaps that’s not a glitch, but it’s still damn annoying.

So in the end, what had the potential to be one of the best games of this generation ended up being a little too shallow and scared. 8/10 I think. I wrote a post a while ago about what I think next gen should be and do, and The Last of Us came close. But just fell short. The plus side is that The Last of Us is THIS gen, not next gen, and if this gen can still produce something like that, then there’s reason to hope. However, the downside is that the game wasn’t let down by technology, but by people. People being too scared to properly address the difficult subjects and move away from the idea of each quiet, exploration and/or story section being nothing more than a stepping stone to the next shootout.

Overall, the story is good enough, the characters and relationships are good, the acting is very good, the setting is good and the combat is good when it’s both optional and minimal. But it doesn’t deserve all those 10/10s.

The Last Of Us