Category Archives: Xbox

#78: Psychonauts

Format: Xbox Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2006 Developer: Double Fine Productions

The other day I was looking back through the games I’ve covered so far on the blog, and it dawned on me that I have a very odd taste in games. Loads of people have been asking me when I’m going to cover classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sensible Soccer, but to be honest I’m more interested in writing about oddities like Doshin the Giant and Emergency Call Ambulance.

That’s partly because odd games are a bit easier to write about of course. One of the most difficult posts to write so far was the one on Super Mario Kart – it’s clearly a fantastic game that had to be included on the blog, but how do you write something new and interesting about a game that everyone already knows everything about? I ended up going with the whole ‘which version of Mario Kart is the best’ angle, but I think I rewrote the whole post about three times before I was reasonably assured that it wasn’t incredibly boring.

Zapping a psychic censor. With your mind.

But the main reason that I tend to pick odd games to write about is that I genuinely like them. Give me the choice between playing Katamari Damacy and Halo 3, and Katamari would win hands down. That’s not to say I don’t like the Halo games of course,  but in the end they’re just a more refined version of a genre that’s been around for nearly 20 years, whereas there’s just nothing like Katamari Damacy out there (except for its sequels of course).

But it’s not just originality that attracts me – a good story is a plus too. I’m not one of those people who just keeps playing the same games again and again (I’m looking at you Ian) – I generally just play through a game once and then move onto something else. But the game has to make me want to see what’s around the next corner to keep me playing, and story is a big part of that.

Inside the mind of a milkman with delusional paranoia.

Dark Sector is a good example of a game that doesn’t quite get it right – the story is all over the place, to the point where the game would probably have been better off without a story at all (watching the developers painstakingly try to explain why some young man has ended up with an organic, psychically controlled throwing blade for an arm is excruciating at times). Not only that, the limited story available is delivered through incredibly dull, poorly scripted cut scenes that actually leave you even more confused about what the hell is going on rather than illuminating the finer details of the hackneyed plot (which mostly centres around the usual mad scientist/femme fatale/betrayed friend gubbins). Thankfully, the game was saved from utter mediocrity by the small spark of originality that is the glaive – the amusement to be had from lopping people’s heads off from a distance was just about enough to keep me playing to the end.

Playing Risk inside the brain of a little chap with a Napoleon complex.

The wonderful Psychonauts, on the other hand, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to originality and story. In fact, it almost goes too far in the opposite direction – basic things, like the controls (which are ridiculously floaty), seem to have been added in almost as an afterthought, such is the focus on telling the sublimely ridiculous story. I won’t go into the details of the plot here (you can read the Wikipedia entry for that), suffice to say that at one point you get trapped inside the mind of a giant mutated lungfish and lay waste to an imaginary city – populated by tiny little mutated lungfish.

Graphically too, the game is exploding with imagination, and the stylised characters and landscapes are totally unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game (think The Nightmare Before Christmas, but set in a psychic summer camp). Not only that, in a welcome change from the norm, the voice acting is absolutely fantastic, and the deadpan one-liners often had me (genuinely) laughing out loud.

Are those faces in the clouds? Brr.

Most importantly, the game kept me playing not because I was trying to collect 100 of this, that and the other, or because I was desperately trying to get some obscure, yet utterly meaningless ‘Achievement’ – I kept playing just because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Which is the way all games should be.

Here’s a taster of the first batch of cut scenes to whet your appetite:

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.psychonauts.com)

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Filed under 2006, Adventure, Double Fine Productions, Platform, Xbox

#60: Half-Life 2

Format: Xbox Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2005 Developer: Valve

You know a game is good when you just can’t stop thinking about it. Half-Life 2 was pretty much the only topic on my mind for the whole time I was playing it, and it preoccupied my thoughts for months and months afterwards. There’s just one word to describe it – amazing.

amazing: (adjective) causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing.

Half-Life 2 was amazing because it showed people that games could reach heights of entertainment, interaction and storytelling that just wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. The story has the slickness and polish of the best action films, but with the added benefit that you – as the voiceless Gordon Freeman – are the one who’s controlling it (or at least the game makes you feel as if you’re controlling it). Not only that, Half-Life 2 did a fantastic job of letting the environment do the storytelling, rather than relying on lengthy, potentially dull cut scenes. As you emerge into the devastated City 17, your first glimpse at the alien, impossibly tall monolith that towers above it gives you all the information you need to know in one glance.

The first appearance of the alien monolith. I think most of the screenshots here are from the PC version, but the Xbox version is much the same (although a little less pretty).

In my opinion, the game’s greatest triumph was its characters. The acting is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, and the characters – particularly Alex – draw you into their story in a way that I’ve yet to see bettered. Half-Life 2 very deliberately avoids the use of cut scenes – you’re in control the whole time – and it’s a testament to the power of the story that I hung on every word the non-player characters uttered, rather than blithely ignoring them.

Shock horror! A computer game in which you actually care about the characters! So if Valve can do it, why can’t everyone else?

"Evenin'."

Then of course there’s the real-time physics. Who’d have thought physics would suddenly become so interesting? For years after Half-Life 2 was released, developers clamoured to stick new and improved physics engines in their games, all because some bright spark at Valve invented  something called the Gravity Gun.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as grabbing a nearby bin with the trusty old GG, carefully lining it up at a row of oncoming soldiers, then unleashing it with the force of a 1,000 Geoff Capes, knocking your enemies down like skittles. Finally, a worthy successor to the BFG as gaming’s Most Satisfying Weapon.

The walkers were deadly, but brilliant. Anyone remember The Tripods?

And I haven’t even mentioned the sound yet… The inhuman electronic gurgle of the enemy soldiers can be heard long before they’re seen, and it instantly puts you into a state of high awareness as you edge around corners. It’s a brilliant sound effect, carried over and improved from the original game, and whenever I think of Half-Life 2 it always pops into the back of my head. Even if I don’t want it to. Brr.

I think you might need a bigger gun...

I could go on all day about how amazing this game is, but I think I’ll end by saying that Half-Life 2 was way ahead of its time – it showed that engaging storytelling and intense action don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive concepts, and it set a benchmark of gaming excellence that, frankly, has yet to be reached by most of the games on the market today.

Now witness the genius of the Gravity Gun:

Lewis

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Filed under 2005, First Person Shooter, Valve, Xbox

#31: Steel Battalion

Format: Xbox Genre: Mech Game* Released: 2003 Developer: Capcom

I saw the controller for this game before I knew anything else about it. I was doing work experience at CVG at the time, and a leaked internet photo of the extravagant twin joystick/pedal interface (see photo below) caused everyone in the office to gather round and gawp like idiots. Initially I thought it was some sort of joke, but an official press release from Capcom quickly followed – apparently they were serious about releasing a peripheral approximately half the size of the average Japanese living room**.

Steel_Battalion_Coverart

It’s obvious that the control system was dreamt up by some seriously nuts mech fanboys who wanted to take the mech game experience to its logical extreme – i.e. by recreating an actual mech cockpit***. But this is just what makes the game so appealing and refreshing – it’s fantastic to see someone coming up with such a frankly bonkers idea and then just running with it. I’d love to have seen the looks on the faces of the Capcom execs when the developers were pitching this idea, but huge kudos to the Capcom bigwigs for going with it – most companies would have run a mile when they found out how much the controller would cost. (The controller and game retailed for $200 in the US, and this was in the days before  expensive guitar and drum controllers were commonplace. Apparently the game broke even though, and they even made a sequel.)

steel battalion controller

The array of options on the controller is staggering – it features over 40 buttons, the most notorious of which was the ‘eject’ button, housed underneath a plastic cover on the top right of the console. If your mech (sorry, VT****) takes critical damage, the eject button starts flashing and you have only a few seconds to hit it before your VT explodes in a rain of fiery death. Failure to hit the button in time results in the death of your character and your save game being erased. Yep, there are no second chances in Steel Battalion – this game takes the notion of hardcore gaming to worrying extremes. I’m just surprised that the controller doesn’t give you electric shocks every time you get hit.

steel battalion screenshot 1

As you’d expect from the dazzlingly complicated array of buttons (you can read a full list of what they all do here), there’s a bit more to Steel Battalion than simple arcade-style shooting and dodging. The attention to detail is frankly ludicrous – there’s even a button that washes the camera on the front of the VT if it gets dirty during a fight (yes, that’s right, there’s a button for windscreen washers). Not to mention a fire extinguisher button and no less than 8 buttons that are used solely for starting up your VT (see video below).  Admittedly, going through all the rigmarole of pressing these various switches just to get your VT walking is quite entertaining the first time you do it, and adds to the experience enormously. However, I imagine that by the 50th time you play the game, this extended start-up sequence might start to lose some of its lustre… “Come on you bloody machine, start will you! I just want to shoot things!!!”

steel battalion screenshot 2

I say ‘I imagine’ because in fact I only ever played Steel Battalion once, at a friend’s house. (A friend with a very understanding wife who didn’t mind the fact that most of the living room had disappeared underneath shiny black plastic and flashing buttons. Having said that, he didn’t have it for very long, so maybe she put her foot down.)

“What?!”, I hear you cry, “How can you include a game that you only ever played once?!”

Well, I reply, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that this is my blog and I’ll do exactly what I like thank you very much. Hem hem. [Clears throat]

steel battalion screenshot 3

But more to the point, the whole ethos around this game probably gave me more enjoyment than my short time playing the game itself – from the buzz of excitement generated by the first pictures in the CVG office, right through to my friend excitedly telling me that he’d actually bought it. Laying my hands on that fantastically ridiculous controller for the first (and last) time was just the icing on the cake.

If you look at the shelves in any game shop you’ll see they’re heaving with ‘me too’ software – myriad copycat first-person shooters or film-licenced rubbish – so it’s good to know that there are some game companies out there with a bit of imagination and the conviction to try something new. Nice one Capcom.

Lewis

*I’ve listed this one as a ‘Mech Game’ – I was going to just put it down as ‘Action’ or ‘Vehicle Simulation’, but they’re such vague definitions as to be almost useless. I think mech games occupy a special genre of their own – a heady mix of cinematic action and unbelievably anal stat fiddling. See Armored Core For Answer for a recent example (incredibly, this is the thirteenth game in the Armored Core series – there must be a factory somewhere just churning them out).

**From an eBay listing of Steel Battalion:

I haven’t got the space for this – I only bought it a couple of days ago and my wife won’t let me keep it =(

I can just imagine the look on his wife’s face as he came through the door lugging a controller the size of a fridge. Priceless.

***I just found out that the controller was developed before they even started making the game (see here), which makes sense.

****Curiously, the two-legged metal behemoths are referred to as ‘Vertical Tanks’ or ‘VTs’ in the game rather than mechs.

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Filed under 2003, Capcom, Mech Game, Xbox

#19: Halo 2

Format: X-Box Genre: First-Person Shooter Released: 2004 Developer: Bungie

It was a tough call to choose which Halo to include here. I ruled out Halo 3 early on, simply because it didn’t have the same impact on me as the first two, even though it’s an excellent game. Halo 1 very nearly made it: I was blown away when I first played it at an X-Box launch event, and driving a jeep in co-op mode is right up there among gaming’s all time top moments. It’s sort of like taking a drive into the country with a friend, only the friend is in control of a gatling gun and keeps shouting at you for driving off cliffs.

halo-2-box-art

In the end though, Halo 2 was the clear winner, chiefly because of the enormous amount of fun I had playing it on local multiplayer. I don’t care what anyone says, playing games against people in your own living room will always be miles better than playing over the internet – the only downside being that you have to actually get the people there in the first place. Oh, and in the case of this game, a link cable, two massive TVs, two X-Boxes, two copies of Halo 2 and eight controllers.

halo 2 ghost

But, after weeks of careful planning, this was exactly what I managed to do in Japan back in June 2005, as documented on my blog An Englishman In Nyu-gun. It took some effort to get all the various bits together, especially in X-Box-starved Japan, but it was worth it – by the end of the evening my face hurt from grinning so much. Nothing really brings out the smiles quite like shooting your friend in the face with a rocket launcher.

Eight-player Halo 2, June 2005

Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to experience such a local eight-player gaming fest again. The sheer logistics involved in getting so many people and so much equipment together – not to mention the fact that most people I know don’t have the time they once did to dedicate their lives to the cause of video games – means that this event was probably a one-off. But gosh darn, what a night it was. 

halo 2 split screen tank

Special mention must go to the Zanzibar map with its alien ferris wheel (at least I presume that’s what it is), but my favourite map will always be Coagulation, which is based on the Blood Gulch map from the original Halo. The fact that it has two Banshees opens up the possibility for airborne chicken runs (first one to pull up loses), and its combination of wide open spaces, rocket launchers and sniper rifles makes for some highly entertaining skirmishes.

halo 2 jeep

The only downside of this map is the lack of energy sword – officially the most cheaty and frustrating (if you’re on the wrong end of it) yet hugely entertaining weapon in the whole game. Our gaming session that night was frequently punctuated by howls of frustration as some cheeky young cub went round dispatching all and sundry with said sword, only for the rest of us to unite in an almighty virtual bundle against the miscreant. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, etc. etc.. Although he’s just as likely to die by plasma rifle in this instance.

Damn, all this reminiscing has made me want to play it again. Anyone got a couple of X-Boxes and a bit of spare time?

(And a link cable, two massive TVs, two copies of Halo 2, eight controllers, an understanding wife, a babysitter, etc. etc.)

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.ign.com)

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Filed under 2004, Bungie, First Person Shooter, Xbox