Category: Analysis

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Developed by Firaxis Games
Released in 2012
Played in 2012
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Alien life exists, and apparently wants your lunch money. The invasion has begun, with attacks and abductions taking place around the globe. A council of nations activates the “XCOM Project”, a paramilitary organization tasked with the defense of Earth from extraterrestrial threat. But we’re in a recession, so they want it funded at bottom dollar. You, your 15 soldiers and 2 fighter jets need to hold back the tide until you get your allowance with next month’s report card.

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Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

Developed by Rockstar North
Released in 2008
Played in 2008
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Niko Bellic is a man who can’t escape his violent past. He arrives in America under the pretense of reconnecting with his Dionysian cousin Roman and trying to “make good decisions”, although we soon learn that his motives are more complicated. A decade-old betrayal haunts him, and he has tracked one of his suspects to Liberty City, intent on revenge. Before very long, Niko is making very bad decisions indeed, immersing himself in violence and crime while attempting to accrue the money and connections he needs to find his man.

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Fallout 3

Fallout 3

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
Released in 2008
Played in 2008
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Life was pretty great in Vault 101. Sure, it was dirty, dark, and populated mainly by glitchy animatronic dummies, but it was home. Then dear old dad had to go and blow everything. He breaks the cardinal rule of Vault 101: no one enters, no one leaves. Wanted to answer for your father’s crimes, you make your escape and follow him out into the capital wasteland. Then you wander around for a long, long time. Eventually you find your father trapped in a VR simulation and free him, allowing him to continue his work to purify the waters and pave the way for life for thrive on the surface once again. Naturally, this comes at a cost.

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Splinter Cell Double Agent

Developed by Ubisoft Shanghai
Released in 2006
Played in 2006
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

The Splinter Cell series mixes up its established formula by sending veteran spy Sam Fisher undercover on a mission to infiltrate a domestic terror cell. Sam’s in a pretty dark emotional place, having recently lost his daughter in a car accident, and the story seems designed to push him to the edge of the NSA’s (and by extension, the player’s) comfort zone. Sam has to gain his mayhem-enthusiast friends’ trust while balancing the interests of the NSA and his larger mission goals. For a while it seems like the escalating demands of both sides are leading to a riveting finale, but then the game peters out with a shameful elipsis of an ending.

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Oblivion

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
Released in 2006
Played in 2006
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion*

What it’s about

Set in the central Imperial province of Cyrodiil, Oblivion tells the story of the assassination of Emperor Uriel Septim VII and the resulting chaos as the dragonfires — bear with me here — go out, leaving this plane of existence vulnerable to invasion by demonic forces. You are tasked by the Blades (it’s always the Blades doing the plot’s heavy lifting, isn’t it?) with finding Martin, Uriel’s illegitimate son and last surviving heir. By putting him on the throne, you can close the Oblivion gates opening across the land, which you will certainly want to do because they are extremely repetitive. Naturally, complications arise.

Of course, it’s an Elder Scrolls game, so saying that it is “about” the main plot is practically missing the point. It’s an unfathomably large game.

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Indigo Prophecy

This post is in its legacy format, awaiting an editorial update pass.

Played to completion?: Yes
 
Overview:
A truly unique and innovative take on the all-but-dead adventure game, Indigo Prophecy is a murder mystery built around the twist that we know whodunnit from the first scene: you.  While bewildered murderer Lucas Kane attempts to sort out what supernatural force compelled him to kill a total stranger, the player also takes control of the detectives on his trail, creating an interesting metagame of self-conflict: the better the player does on one side of the investigation, the harder s/he makes it for him/herself on the other side.  Utilizing an interesting dual-stick control scheme and avoiding the traditional ridiculous puzzles which plague the genre, the game focuses on the telling of its story first and foremost, to its players’ benefit.
 
What I liked:
If the adventure game genre is to be reborn, let it be like this.  Game designers take note: we don’t need a lot of stupid roadblock puzzles to pad out gameplay.  Make the game about thinking and feeling, not about picking up every piece of trash we pass that isn’t nailed down and playing second-guess-the-designer to match each with the appropriate puzzle.  The context-sensitive stick-motion controls (press down on the right stick to look down at the newspaper at your feet, or sweep up and to the left to hoist yourself over the fence) root the gameplay in the setting, making you feel like you are interacting with these physical spaces.  The rhythm mini-games for the action sequences, though overused, are clever and often grueling.  And the use of multiple player characters working at cross purposes makes the player feel like a participant in the storytelling rather than a recipient.
 
In the early chapters of the game, the storytelling is riveting, developing an atmosphere of entropy throughout that you must fight back against.  Instead of health bars, the characters each have a meter tracking their emotional state ranging from normal to wrecked (a statement regarding the mood of the game), which story events will periodically drain and the player must maintain by participating in normal, comfort-food type of behaviors.  That strumming on a guitar or taking a moment to raid the fridge can be all that stands between you and a mental breakdown is a powerful statement about the nature of being human.
 
What I’d have done differently:
Despite its strong start, near the half-way point of the plot (right about the time Lucas Kane starts to think he’s in the Matrix) the game’s storytelling goes down the drain fast.  The plot begins to feel like a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together elements from other, better stories.  Secret societies, Mayan mythology, artificial intelligences, alien artifacts; everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in with little regard for logic, and a few especially offensive scenes (the aforementioned Matrix envy and a shameless ripoff of Silence of the Lambs) leave you wondering if you’re playing the same murder mystery game you started.  Most upsetting is the apparent abandonment of any sense of character motivation as Detective Carla Valenti teams up with the murderer she has been tracking for no obvious reason, and ends up sleeping with him shortly after.  Ugh.  Bad game plots are nothing new, but the fact that this one started off so strongly, and that as an adventure game it functions so well otherwise, makes it sting.  What could have been a great game is instead merely ok.
 
Closing:
I hope this game is not the last of its kind.  I want to play the secret, good second half that I know must exist.  May some dedicated game developer, whose love of adventure games hasn’t yet been snuffed out by the doomsayers, take this system and use it to tell a story that reminds us why adventure games were great.
 
Would I recommend it?: Yes, with reservations.  Adventure fans will be the most receptive to it conceptually, but perhaps also the most disappointed by its plot.

Okami

This post is in its legacy format, awaiting an editorial update pass.

Played to completion?: No
 
Overview:
An adventure platformer in the style of the modern Zelda series, Okami stands out for its striking art style and its delightful Celestial Brush gameplay.  The game tells the story of a goddess who incorporates into the form of a wolf to battle an ancient evil, and follows the silent Amaterasu and obnoxious sidekick Issun as they travel around Japan cleansing the land of evil and collecting new brush techniques.  Gameplay follows the tried and true convention of awarding a new technique (power/move) in each dungeon to use against the boss, which thereafter opens new avenues of exploration in the outside world.
 
What I liked:
Familiar though the New Trick = New Path mechanic may be, it feels as fresh as ever.  Most of the 13 brush techniques manage to feel unique and empowering, and the mental catalogue you make as you move through the world noting features you can’t exploit (dry ground, cracked walls, cat statues) invariably leads to a sense of delight as you acquire each new power.  The graphics are beautiful and simple, and the maps, though smallish at times, are dense with hidden treasures and secrets.  The bizarre characters and situations are often quite funny in a "Damn, Japan is an odd place" kind of way.  Although I never really stopped finding Issun annoying, eventually I grew numb to his endless prattle and came to like him, in the way one might name an unsightly growth on the body.
 
What I’d have done differently:
The main problem with this game, which plagued it throughout, was pacing.  This game sets up, from the opening cinematic, the great evil in the world as being the eight-headed demon Orochi.  You travel around for a while, collecting techniques and defeating incidental monsters along the way, and before you know it you’re face to face to face to … (you get the idea) with the evil demon himself, and in the blink of an eye you’ve kicked his eight asses.  But the game doesn’t end there, and with a vague mention of some ominous shadow rising into the sky you’re released back into the world.  You keep getting directions from Issun but without being offered any explanation of why your mission on earth isn’t finished.  You will continue into act two in a struggle against an evil fox demon plaguing a major city, whom you will also defeat, and still with only the barest hint of why you aren’t done yet.  In a way this three-act game feels like it ought to have been a trilogy, with each evil foe better fleshed out and realized.  Instead these thinly-connected chapters are strung together and no single opponent ever feels particularly threatening.  There is no build-up, no suspense — by the time you know what demon creature you’re supposed to fear, you’ve killed it.
 
Aside from a few other minor complaints (Soul Reaver managed streaming environments back in 1999, there simply is no excuse any longer for these segmented maps and loading screens), this issue dominates in its interference with enjoyment of the game.  The overall plot feels disjointed and haphazard, as though constructed to fit a nearly-finished game.  Common though this sin may be, it should never be apparent to the player.
 
Closing:
Ultimately Okami accomplishes many of the objectives of its genre but fails on a few key points which are, I would contend, the elements which made the Legend of Zelda series so beloved.  It is very fun to play, but as a storytelling game easily forgettable.  As with many games suffering from weak story, it fell victim to the 90% rule: if the player completes 90% of the game’s story (not necessarily content) and then asks him/herself whether s/he is interested in seeing the conclusion, anything less than an emphatic "Yes!" is failure.
 
Would I recommend it?: Yes, for a rental.