A farewell to arms

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3)

OldboyMuch of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an air of finality about it, as far as I’m concerned. Not only because it marks the chronological endpoint of Snake’s story, but also because it turned out to be the last MGS game I ever played. On a technical and gameplay level, it’s functional: nothing spectacular, but also nothing abysmally wrong (apart from long loading times), and if combat is what interests you, then you probably won’t find much to complain about here. The graphics still look good today, the soundtrack is decent, and there are some interesting narrative choices. But I’ve also never really felt the urge to pick up another MGS game after this one, nor the urge to actually replay it, which may sound surprising, considering the hyperbolic praise this game received upon release. Maybe I just got tired of the nonsense, which stopped being epic and just became nonsense. Maybe because all they can do now is prequels, unless they want to continue with Raiden. Maybe because I don’t actually like what they’ve decided to do with Raiden’s story in Metal Gear Rising. Maybe because I hit my cutscene saturation point. Maybe because the game finally went overboard from “puerile” to “offensive” in some of its characterisations. Or maybe all of this at once.

KnockoutLet’s start with some positives though. Combat now takes place with an over-the-shoulder camera, which you can actually switch sides for an easier time looking around corners, as well as switching to first-person mode. Camouflage makes a return from MGS3, as Snake wears an enhanced bodysuit with camouflage properties, which he can further supplement with face camo after a specific boss fight. He’s also equipped with a “Solid Eye”, which looks like an eyepatch (to further enhance the similarities with Big Boss) and functions as binoculars or night-vision goggles, as well as informing Snake of things like what weapons the soldiers use or footprints that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, and providing a mini-map. As MGS4 was one of the first games developed for the PlayStation 3, the rumble feature was only implemented late into the game’s development cycle, meaning that it uses a system called the Threat Ring, which appears around Snake himself and becomes visibly distorted when an enemy is detected nearby, indicating which direction they’re coming from.

Butt zap!Two other additions are the Psyche Gauge and the Metal Gear Mk. II.  The former indicates Snake’s stress level, which affects things like aim or the likelihood of passing out after being wounded, and serves to humanise him a bit and make him more relatable. He can stress out from stuff like extreme temperatures or bad smells, while having a smoke, eating something or looking at a naughty magazine will help him relax. The Metal Gear Mk. II is a small robot on wheels designed by Otacon to serve as a mini-reconnaissance unit. It functions as a mobile codec to communicate with other characters, can scout for Snake, but also deliver electric shocks to enemies to temporarily stun them. All in all, the fact that I can’t really remember much about the combat is probably a positive point, since it means that it flowed seamlessly enough for me not to notice it.

If only saluting would end this gameThe problem is that the game often prevents you from actually playing. The series’ trademark cutscene bloat reached an all-time high in this particular opus. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that Hideo Kojima’s career has been one long, arduous battle against his hardwired desire to make films rather than games. By all accounts, he has managed to get it under control for MGS5, but this is probably as a direct result of what happened with MGS4. As of 2015 (I don’t know if this is still true today, but it very well might be), it held Guinness World Records for the longest single cutscene (27 mins) and longest cutscene sequence (71 mins…) in a videogame, the former being included within the latter as part of the game’s ending. Someone did some number crunching on this and came up with a staggering 44% cutscene-to-gameplay proportion. By comparison, MGS2, in second place, had a 41% ratio, but its longest cutscene was only 20 mins long.  

Could've saved you a lot of troubleCombine this with what is possibly the most convoluted and poorly-written storyline in the series and, by the end of it, I was basically in a cutscene-induced stupor. There are just too many twists-that-aren’t-really-twists, red herrings and overly-convenient (or nonsensical) explanations, and once the game is done, and you think back on what’s happened, you may well be forgiven for wondering whether all of that was really necessary. The key facts, though, are that it’s 2014 and that “war…has changed”, as Snake’s voiceover takes pains to remind you over and over again in the intro sequence. The world economy is now somehow fully dependent on war, resulting in a constant global conflict where private military companies fight each other for…reasons. As a result of the events of MGS2, Liquid Snake’s consciousness has taken over Revolver Ocelot’s body (well…it’s complicated) and basically established a single mega-mercenary company, fuelling the chaos. Colonel Campbell has asked Solid Snake to off him, and that’s where the game begins.

For old times' sakeSnake has been ageing rapidly, due to being a clone, and is now an old man, which makes for an interesting take on the traditional hero persona. Instead of your usual battle-hardened muscle-head, you have to deal with an elderly, disillusioned, often bitter man whose only real prospect in life is impending decrepitude and death. This only has minimal impact on the gameplay, as Snake’s bodysuit also compensates for his physical deterioration (he still gets back pains though), but it does impact the storyline, especially when he inevitably bumps into Meryl again (and I still can’t quite believe that they decided to end her character arc as they did). EVA also resurfaces, and it’s disconcerting to see her son looking the same age as her. Although I have to take exception to the fact that, at 78, she’s still rockin’ that damn cleavage…Was there really no way to tastefully depict a woman of her age? Also, her introduction, verbatim: “Call me Mama…*dramatic pause* Big Mama”. I’m sorry, I just can’t. Yes, the MGS series is notorious for mixing up the serious and the silly, but this is an example where it doesn’t work. 

Dat smirkAnyway, Snake now lives with Otacon (platonically, although, by the end of the game, you gotta start wondering, because poor Hal’s disastrous track record with women unfortunately holds), and they have essentially adopted Olga Gurlukovich’s daughter, Sunny, whom Raiden managed to rescue from the Patriots with EVA’s help. However, he was later captured by them and, in a rather shocking development, turned into a cyborg. The only remaining organic part of him is his spine and head, minus the lower jaw (and yet, he’s somehow still sexy). His relationship with Rose has also broken down, and all of this basically turned him into a brooding badass–so much so that he fights an entire battle with his sword held between his teeth at one point, due to being unable to use his hands–, much to the surprise of those who complained about his whining in MGS2. His feud with Vamp is also alive and well (and practically drowning in innuendo), and results in two eye-catching duels. All in all, he was probably my favourite part of the game, and I appreciated the way his story ended. And then MGR happened. But I digress.

IncandescentAn MGS game wouldn’t be complete without a Foxhound-like villain squad, and, sure enough, there is one here, called the Beauty and the Beast unit, pushing the similarities to imitating the original Foxhound codenames mixed with emotion-based epithets, à la MGS3’s Cobra Unit, which doesn’t bode well for their originality. There’s a Laughing Octopus, a Raging Raven, a Crying Wolf and a Screaming Mantis. However, I have a real problem with their portrayal. You see, they’re all female and based on fashion models. Now, in itself, an all-female villain squad might’ve been a welcome novelty, and I can’t deny that they’re all beautiful, especially Raging Raven, who is nuclear levels of hot. But any characterisation they get comes after they’re dead, which never gives them the chance to establish themselves as anything but pretty faces. On top of that, they all suffer from extreme PTSD, to the extent that they can’t function normally when outside their robotic armour. Cue them writhing around in agony in skintight, glistening wet (for some reason) bodysuits when Snake inevitably destroys said armour, while the camera frantically shows off butts, boobs and cameltoes, like it’s being handled by an overeager horny teenager. Apparently, the original idea was for them to be naked during these sequences, but it proved unworkable due to rating reasons. But if Snake doesn’t damage them for a long enough time after they’re out of their armour, they’ll be transported to a white room where he can take pictures of them while they strike sexy poses. I mean, yes, MGS is known for its fanservice, but, in previous games, this was limited to psychologically functional ladies showing off cleavage or underwear (and balanced by the presence of shirtless gentlemen). This feels uncomfortably like exploitation, and the fact that the trend continued in MGS5 with Quiet is not a good sign at all. Raiden was completely naked in MGS2, you say? Yes, but the camera wasn’t staring up his bum as he was having a full-on nervous breakdown while crying, moaning and panting suggestively. And while he admittedly also has PTSD, it was never portrayed as anywhere near that level of debilitating.

I'm bustin' outta hereTo sum things up, my main feeling throughout this game was just that it had to end. And once it did, I felt that there was sufficient closure for all involved–for better or for worse–, so the decision to continue the franchise could only appear misguided to me, and nothing I have seen, heard or read about the topic has suggested otherwise. If you’re a full-fledged MGS fan, chances are you’ll disagree, and perhaps you think that MGS5 and/or MGR were brilliant. I, however, remain of the opinion that MGS3 was the best in the series and that it all should just have ended with MGS4. It’s been fun, guys. Wish you’d managed to not slip up until the end.

His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Who’s your daddy?!

The culprit: Bioshock 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Faceless heroThere’s a saying that goes ‘can’t have too much of a good thing’. Well, actually, you can. Take the premise for Bioshock 2, for example. You know that point towards the end of the first game, where Jack had to partially transform himself into a Big Daddy? That was cool, wasn’t it? And unexpected too. So, in the wake of that, putting you into the shoes of a Big Daddy for the entire second game is distinctly less unexpected. And when that’s pretty much the only defining characteristic of the protagonist, killing the surprise really doesn’t play in his favour. Granted, Jack wasn’t the most personable guy around, but at least you heard him speak, and he had a recognisable face. Subject Delta is just a dude in a diving suit. You never even learn his real name.

Bang bangAs it turns out, Delta is an Alpha Series Big Daddy. Alpha Series were the first prototype of Big Daddy, not as heavily modified as Rosies or Bouncers and bonded to a single Little Sister, with the disadvantage that, if anything happened to said Little Sister, the Big Daddy would either fall into a coma or become psychotic. Delta was the first of the Alpha Series to be successfully bonded to a Little Sister. Unfortunately, she was Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of Sofia Lamb, a notorious psychiatrist who was invited to Rapture by Andrew Ryan. Lamb’s ideology was diametrically opposed to his–extreme altruism vs extreme individualism–, and she slowly began indoctrinating her patients and founding a cult. Ryan therefore imprisoned her, and Eleanor was turned into a Little Sister. However, Lamb eventually escaped, located Delta, hit him with a Hypnotize Plasmid and forced him to kill himself in front of a horrified Eleanor.

'Sup palCue 10 years later. Eleanor is now grown up and her psychological conditioning has been undone, but she wants no part in her mother’s schemes, which set her up as a messianic figure. Due to receiving massive doses of ADAM, she has developed a psychic connection with all other Little Sisters. Since Delta is the only ‘father’ she’s ever known, she gets the girls to collect samples of his DNA and resurrects him in a Vita Chamber. Due to their bond, Delta has brief telepathic visions of her. However, it’s a guy called Augustus Sinclair, one of Rapture’s top businessmen, who takes it upon himself to guide Delta to her, somewhat like Atlas from the first game. Whether this means that he’s like Atlas in other respects as well…you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Adolescence is a bitchChronologically, this takes place eight years after Bioshock. So Ryan is dead, and Rapture is quickly deteriorating even further. This means darker, more dilapidated surroundings, but also more difficult enemies, including two new kinds of Big Daddy (and a third one in the Minerva’s Den DLC), one new kind of Splicer and the Big Sisters: grown-up Little Sisters who have become violent and unstable after years of ADAM consumption and serve as additional protectors for the Little Sisters; they notably have cages on their backs for transporting the little ones, festooned with ribbons, and their oxygen tanks are decorated with childish scribbles. Big Sisters are fast, agile and strong, can throw fireballs, teleport like Houdini Splicers, and drain ADAM from corpses to replenish their health. I like their aesthetic as well: the gangling silhouette and leg braces suggesting a badly-controlled spurt of growth.

Second-rate villainIn general, Bioshock 2 is a lot more female-oriented than its predecessor. Brigid Tenenbaum was the only prominent female character in the first game, but here, besides the Big Sisters, you have Lamb, Grace (one of her aides) and Eleanor. What’s more, Delta works more closely with the Little Sisters, and Lamb’s ideology is like a perversion of the cliché female attribute of selflessness. This is a valid direction for a sequel to take, but Lamb doesn’t have the same aura as Andrew Ryan did and feels a bit tacked on.

Men on fireGameplay, however, has improved, and combat has been made more strategic. The basic mechanics are the same: Delta needs to fight through hordes of Splicers and tackle Big Daddies (and Big Sisters) using Plasmids and Gene Tonics. However, while Gene Tonic mechanics remain the same, Delta can now use Plasmids and Weapons simultaneously, and both the Plasmid and weapon selections are different. Rather than finding Plasmid upgrades, Delta can now upgrade them himself at Gatherer’s Garden stations, just like weapons. Instead of a wrench, his default melee option is a goddamn drill, like a Bouncer Big Daddy. Instead of a pistol, he has a Rivet Gun, like a Rosie Big Daddy. And instead of a crossbow, he gets a Spear Gun. The Chemical Thrower, however, is gone. What’s more, you must now choose which weapons to upgrade, because there aren’t enough upgrades for all of them. On the plus side, the Research Camera, which grants damage bonuses against enemies, now films instead of taking photos and can be used alongside a weapon during combat, making researching much easier.

ReflexesDelta also gets a Hack Tool, which allows hacking from a distance and can deploy miniature turrets in combat. Hacking has also been made easier. Rather than having to play Pipe Dream like in the first game, now you simply need to stop a moving needle inside a blue or green zone. The latter simply hacks the machine, while the former also grants a bonus (e.g. a discount). Landing in a white zone fails the hack and inflicts damage, while landing in a red zone also triggers an alarm and summons bots.

Everything else stays the same: health and EVE (necessary to use Plasmids) are respectively replenished with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes, as well as food, which can be found or bought at vending machines, as can ammo. Surveillance cameras and bots can be hacked to your advantage, as well as Health Stations, which will poison the Splicers that try to use them. And Vita Chambers are still around to bring Delta back should he suffer an untimely demise.

Rapture adoption servicesThe main plot device also remains the same: how to deal with the Little Sisters, who now unfortunately all look identical. Was it so difficult to at least give them different hair colours, like in the first game? Rather than simply choosing whether to rescue or harvest them, Delta can now also have them gather ADAM for him first. Each time he kills a Big Daddy, Eleanor can persuade the latter’s Little Sister that Delta is actually him, so that he can “Adopt” her. The Little Sister will climb onto his shoulders and travel around with him, signalling ADAM-rich corpses that she can harvest. The problem is that this will prompt every Splicer in the vicinity to come after her. They can’t kill her, but they’ll interrupt her, so Delta will have to fight them off. Each Little Sister can gather from two different corpses. Afterwards, Delta needs to take her to a Vent and decide one final time what to do with her. Rescuing the Little Sisters prompts Eleanor to give Delta gifts, but they are less numerous this time around, which is meant to make the ‘harvest or save’ choice more difficult. I still can’t bring myself to harm the poor things, though, so the dilemma is, once again, lost on me. Whatever your decision, once Delta has dealt with four Little Sisters, an ear-splitting shriek will signal a 30s countdown until the arrival of an angry Big Sister, which seems somewhat incongruous if you’re actually trying to save the girls.

Wolf or LambBe that as it may, Delta’s dealings with the Little Sisters affect the ending, just like in the first game. Moreover, they also affect Eleanor’s outlook on life, which is an interesting change and an additional layer of responsibility to his decisions. This also extends to Delta’s dealings with Lamb’s three main allies: sparing or killing them also influences Eleanor.

A multiplayer mode, entitled Fall of Rapture, has also been added, but since multiplayer’s not my thing, I have no idea what it’s like. On the DLC front, there are two single-player offerings. The first one is called Protector Trials and is reminiscent of the Challenge Rooms from the first game, except that, in keeping with the main game’s mechanic, it involves an unnamed Alpha Series Big Daddy protecting Little Sisters while they gather ADAM. The second DLC, dubbed Minerva’s Den, is more story-based, and follows another prototype Big Daddy called Subject Sigma, as he tries to retake control of Rapture’s supercomputer, The Thinker.

Father figureOverall, I have ambivalent feelings towards Bioshock 2. It’s not a bad game, but something feels lacking. On the one hand, the combat is fun and challenging, and Delta’s Big Daddy-ness does allow for some nifty perks, from being able to wander around underwater to having more interactions with Little Sisters; there’s notably a part of the game where you experience their mental conditioning first-hand. Delta’s influence on Eleanor is also a clever addition. And Rapture is still a compelling, disturbing, nightmarish setting. On the other hand, the storyline isn’t quite up to scratch. Neither Lamb nor Delta is a very interesting character. And the fact that both DLCs also feature Big Daddies as protagonists really doesn’t help. Just how many self-aware Big Daddies are there in Rapture, anyway? Bottom line: if you enjoyed the first Bioshock for its combat, you’ll find plenty to like in this one as well. If you enjoyed it for other reasons, you might feel a tad disappointed.

Potato batteries and combustible lemons

The culprit: Portal 2 (PC, Mac, PlayStation3, Xbox 360)

Wire octopusA good sequel is always a pleasant surprise. But a good sequel to a sleeper hit is a special kind of treat. The first Portal was a flash of wickedly funny genius out of left field. Portal 2 confirms that the series is in the hands of consistently brilliant writers. In other words, the cake wasn’t a lie.

By now, the qualities of the first game have been widely broadcast, but, shocking as it may seem, it did also have flaws, the most notable of which was repetitiveness. While its length successfully prevented that from becoming a major problem (at least on first playthrough), more of the same for a whole second game would’ve been problematic. Well, Portal 2 avoids that problem, and, in retrospect, makes the first game feel like a bit of a prototype. Which, to be entirely fair, it was.

FashionistaYou are still in control of Chell (with a mysterious wardrobe upgrade), whom, as you may remember, the first game left in rather dire straits. Now, she is awakened in a stasis room–or Extended Relaxation Centre–by a voice on the intercom for a short tutorial: the controls are pretty much the same as before: walk, jump, crouch, pick up stuff and, later, place portals. She’s then put back to sleep; when she next awakens, several years–or decades?–have obviously passed (c.f. the pillow). An autonomous, rather worried-sounding personality core named Wheatley contacts her and helps her escape, as she has apparently been scheduled to be terminated. This leads to two discoveries: one, the Aperture Science facility is huge; two, it’s now in a rather poor state.

BreakdownThus, instead of the pristine white rooms of the first game, Chell now travels through dilapidated, half-overgrown environments, once again with the goal to save her skin. This gives the game a more chaotic feel. You now have to get even more creative with the rules, and the puzzles still provide just the right level of challenge, between figuring out the solutions and executing them.

Walking on lightChell still has a portal gun, since that is, after all, the founding principle of the series, but many new gadgets are also introduced, such as Aerial Faith Plates (boing!), Hard Light Bridges and Excursion Funnels (i.e. tractor beams). Weighted Storage Cubes (and the Companion Cube <3) also make a comeback, now joined by their cousins, the Redirection Cubes. Of course, the game would feel incomplete without the good ol’ turrets, which now come in startlingly humorous varieties, including an Oracle Turret. They’re still just as deadly though–well, mostly–, but the game’s autosave function will take care of any accidental demises.

BlinkyWheatley accompanies and helps Chell, much as GLaDOS did in the first game, with the difference that he is mobile and visible. A lot of people seem to dislike him, and I can see where they’re coming from: he’s very different from GLaDOS, a bumbling, manic worrywart instead of a cool, cynical mastermind. Still, I enjoyed the change of pace, and there’s more to him than first meets the eye.

Science bubblesApart from what’s left of the main facility, which notably features some brilliant safety advertisements for Aperture employees, such as the ‘Animal King Takeover’, Chell also gets to explore the underbelly of Aperture, as she visits the ruins of its old premises, located in a salt mine. How and why she gets there is up to you to discover, but predictable it certainly is not. These levels are slightly harder, as the state of the infrastructure makes them more dangerous to navigate, and the devices used back in the day were different from the ones you may be accustomed to. Chell gets to sample old test chamber prototypes, but also gadgets that were abandoned as the facility developed, such as gels, which you’ll find shooting out of pipes and can direct on various surfaces at your convenience.

Speed trackBlue (repulsion) gel allows Chell to bounce very high; orange (propulsion) gel allows her to go into Speedy Gonzales mode; and white (conversion) gel allows her to coat surfaces in white paint, thereby enabling the placement of portals in previously inaccessible locations. Some people may find the gels rather haphazard as a means of puzzle solving, but I thought that that was the whole point: they were discontinued as a product, after all, there’s gotta be a reason for that. Overall, I found this a welcome diversion from ‘normal’ portal mechanics and a way to keep the player interested and constantly on their toes.

The man with the lemonsThe Old Aperture levels also serve to introduce, via recordings, the now-defunct but legendary Cave Johnson, founder of the company, champion of scientific progress (well, sorta…) and author of truly epic speeches, such as the one about combustible lemons, which I will let you savour firsthand. It also creates a much-enhanced backstory for the game, something that was markedly absent from the first opus. It successfully builds on the already present theme of science gone haywire, and I found that it brought welcome depth and context to the table, as well as some startling revelations. It’s also at this point that you will have to deal with a very special potato battery.

Much ado about spaceI feel I should also mention the ending of the game, which manages to be hilarious, completely crazy and emotional at the same time. Spoilers are out of the question, of course, but, just to give you an idea, the description of the achievement you receive for experiencing it reads “That just happened.” I must also put in a word for the Space Personality Core.  You’ll know why when you encounter it.

Laurel and HardyPortal 2 introduces a two-player mode instead of the challenge rooms of its predecessor. Each player is put in control of a robot and tasked with testing out experimental chambers. Since they are robots, they are in no danger of dying, which makes them perfect for the job and is precisely the reason why they were created for testing. There’s a squat, rotund ‘male’ robot with a blue eye called Atlas and a tall, oblong ‘female’ one with a yellow eye called P-Body: they even made it onto the game’s cover, which, admittedly, is a bit misleading, because they barely appear in the main game, and you never control them. Be that as it may, in two-player mode, each has a portal gun, which allows players to work with four portals instead of two and thus greatly expands the scope of what they can do. Again, as with all multiplayer modes, I’ve not touched it, so I can’t really give an opinion on it. However, I’ve heard a lot of praise for it, and I have to admit that the robots are cute, at least, and that the Portal universe lends itself to this kind of gameplay pretty much ideally.

Good adviceOverall, I thought Portal 2 was an excellent follow up to its predecessor, expanding on the original story in all the good ways and creating a wonderfully exhilarating, fun experience, filled with humour, surprises and even more gravity-defying stunts. Of course, there will always be things to criticise, and complaints have included a lack of direction in the second act of the game or the length of loading times. None of that bothered me, however; I had a genuine blast and, to anyone who hasn’t played this yet, I put the following question: “what are you waiting for?”

Get on with it

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood promotional artWhen Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was first announced, my reaction was one of suspicion. It’s not that the AC series hadn’t produced spinoffs before: there were two for the first game and one for the second already. And it’s not that I didn’t fully expect Ezio’s decision at the end of ACII to come back and bite him–or at least someone–in the rear end. However, ACB wasn’t a spinoff: it was a fully-fledged game giving Ezio more limelight than I thought he deserved. The fact that it also looked like a poorly-disguised vehicle for multiplayer didn’t help. All in all, it felt like an unnecessary filler episode.

KillchainJust to get this out of the way: I am not a multiplayer person. With some very rare exceptions, you’ll never see me advocating it. Blame it on my completionism, my non-competitiveness or my extensively exploratory gaming style, but there you have it. So all I know about ACB multiplayer is that you can play as a variety of Assassin types.

Back to the matter at hand. Despite my first impression, I did give single-player ACB its due. And well…it is a filler episode, there’s no way around that. But if you like Ezio, you’ll probably be glad that he gets more screentime. And if you don’t, there are other things that Friendly faceACB could reel you in with. For instance, it confirms a trend of memorable secondary characters. Our good old pal Leo is still there, even though his relevance to the main plot is greatly reduced; he’s only there to provide Ezio with gadgets (including parachutes) and some sidequests to destroy his war machines, which he doesn’t want used by the Templars. Additionally, the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC provides him with a lengthier side-story.

Other recurring faces include Caterina Sforza, whom Ezio gets to know a lot better, if you catch my drift, and the garrulous, yet sympathetic mercenary captain Bartolomeo d’Alviano, thanks to whom Ezio finds himself involved in a rather hilarious linguistic Nemesisepisode. But the main highlight of the cast is the main villain: Cesare Borgia, son of Rodrigo, ACII’s big bad. As Ezio, for some obscure reason, spared Rodrigo at the end of ACII, it’s only fair that his son should want payback. Let’s not mince words: Cesare is a colossal jerk. But he’s precisely one of those you love to hate. Flamboyant, petulant, arrogant and infinitely ambitious, he provides enough theatrics and cruelty to make you want to kick his butt. I may also rather like his dark looks…Anyway, no story about the Borgia would be complete without Lucrezia, Cesare’s infamous sister, and sure enough, she’s there, even though her role is less prominent than her sibling’s. And if you’re wondering whether the game upholds the historical rumours concerning the two, the answer is clearly ‘yes’.

When in RomeThe storyline I found to be distinctly weaker this time around. Ezio finds himself in Rome, trying to sap Cesare’s influence and put an end to the Borgias. And…that’s about it. You’ll spend 95% of the game in Rome; the rest is comprised of Desmond’s sequences, which are set in modern-day Monteriggioni, and some short secondary missions, which briefly take you back to Florence, Venice and other, hitherto unknown locations. I find this to be a distinct flaw: part of the appeal of the AC series so far, for me, has been the exploration of different cityscapes, so to be effectively limited to one city, no matter how large and varied, feels restrictive. Moreover, the plot casts Ezio in a rather poor light: he made a big mistake, and now he has to fix it, but considering the amount of faffing he gets up to once again, he doesn’t seem to be in too much hurry to do so. Then again, what are seven more years when you’ve already spent twenty doing who knows what, right?

ParatrooperCombat is virtually identical to ACII with some additional gadgets. Parachutes have already been mentioned, thus allowing Ezio to survive potentially lethal falls. Moreover, he now has poison darts, which spare him the trouble of walking up to guards to poison them, but also a crossbow, which has the advantage of a longer range over throwing knives and silence over the gun. What’s more, Ezio is now able to dual-wield, usually the gun alongside a sword. The most significant change, however, is the introduction of execution Learn it, love itstreaks. To wit: if you select a different enemy than the one Ezio is currently killing (it has to be in the middle of the killing animation), he’ll immediately kill him in one hit straight afterwards, and you can keep going until everyone’s dead. That is, provided you don’t get interrupted, as other enemies can attack you while you’re doing this. The key is pre-empting attacks by keeping an eye on their health bars. If one starts flashing, that enemy is about to attack, meaning that Ezio should target him next. It’s not always easy, but if you manage it, combat becomes a cakewalk. I’m not sure that’s an advantage, but there you have it. If you need practice, you have the Virtual Training Program, an upgrade to the Animus which allows Desmond to participate in a variety of simulations–both combat- and agility-related–as Ezio.

Gameplay also receives several noteworthy brushups. First of all, while Desmond simply had to perform a set goal during each of Altaïr’s and ACII Ezio’s memories, the new and The way you do the things you doupgraded Animus spices things up. Now, simply achieving the mission goal will only grant you 50% sync. If you want the full 100%, you’ll have to fulfil an additional requirement, such as completing the mission within a certain time, killing the target in a specific way or not falling into water (or some other equally arbitrary condition), presumably to do things exactly like Ezio did. I understand the developers’ desire to keep things challenging, but I found this change aggravating.

FireworksSecondly, instead of renovating Monteriggioni, you now renovate Rome. In order to start renovating a district, you have to free it from Borgia influence, which involves killing the local Templar captain, then setting fire to a lookout tower. You can then put shops back into business, renovate monuments (eg. the Coliseum) and sewer tunnels, which are a new addition to allow faster travel between the various districts, but also assign vacant buildings to various factions, thus strategically distributing groups of courtesans, mercenaries and thieves throughout the city. As if that weren’t enough, each faction now has a set of challenges Ezio can undertake (such as killing a certain number of guards with poison). There are various advantages to completing these (reduced hiring costs, new weapons), and they’re also needed for a trophy/achievement.

Have at them!Last but not least, the reason behind the game’s name: Assassin recruits. Partway through the storyline, Ezio will be able to help civilians being harassed by guards. In return, they will pledge themselves to the Assassin cause. Ezio can then send them on missions, which will gradually increase their rank. Mission difficulty is indicated by stars and a percentage of success. Obviously, you don’t want to send a fresh recruit on a 4-star mission: if they fail, they die, and you’ll have to recruit someone new. Recruits can be of either gender, depending on the location where you find them, and their names are randomised. You can change the colour of their outfits and, once they gain a level, Full-fledgedupgrade their weapons and armour. When they finally reach the rank of Assassin, you can travel back to the Assassin HQ to formally induct them into the Order via a ceremony. The advantages of recruits? Ezio can summon them in combat or have them unleash an arrow storm, which usually kills all soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Of course, this only makes fighting even easier…

Overall, I’d say that this game is a mixed bag at best. It does have its good moments, and after a while, you get into the old AC-swing of things. On the other hand, it also shows distinct signs of getting bogged down by bling. I was already concerned about excessive variety in ACII, and ACB only adds more chips to the pile. Ultimately, you’ll still wind up with a mountain of cash and a boatload of optional things to accomplish that make you lose track of the overall goal. On the other hand, if you just go for the overall goal with as few distractions as possible, you’d end up with a rather meagre story, more akin to a scraggly, underfed pony than a well-groomed, healthy purebred. Desmond’s plotline does get a rather shocking twist at the very end, but apart from that, it’s still as I kill you!dull as before and doesn’t help the rest of the game. I guess it’s not easy to deal with this sort of hybrid: crammed into ACII, the events would’ve felt inconsistent and tacked on. But, as a standalone game, it’s a bit too light, and, in the immortal words of Monty Python, I frequently found myself mentally telling Ezio to “get on with it”.

State of grace

The culprit: Journey (PlayStation 3, via PlayStation Network)

The beginningIt’s seldom that I’m blindsided, swept away and awestruck by a game. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Journey, the latest offering from indie developer Thatgamecompany. Having downloaded it upon a friend’s recommendation, I started out with little more than idle curiosity, only to be promptly and thoroughly spellbound. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and a uniquely emotional experience in its own right, made all the more powerful by the fact that it doesn’t contain a single spoken word. Simply put: it goes straight for the heart.

The game opens on a sweeping vista of a desert; glittering sand as far as the eye can see, inexplicably dotted with a multitude of gravestones, while a lonely cello spins out a thread of melody (“Nascence”). Then what looks like a shooting star goes streaming across the sky, Sandy munchkinlanding beyond one of the dunes. The next thing you know, the camera pans down to reveal your character, sitting cross-legged in the sand, as if meditating. This queer little figure in a long red cloak is immediately sympathetic in and of itself, with its glowing white eyes, shadowy face and what appear to be small pointy ears peeking at the top of its hood. As you pan the camera around, a dune with two gravestones on top comes into view, and climbing it reveals your goal: the silhouette of a mountain with a cloven summit looming ominously in the distance. As for the purpose and meaning of this journey, that’s for you to determine. The game doesn’t give any definite answers.

First stepsThe gameplay is very straightforward, yet elegant. The first notable thing you come across after descending the initial dune is a shining white symbol on top of a small ruin. Approaching it has the effect of creating a short strip of cloth with glowing embroidery at the back of your character’s hood, like a short scarf. You’ll also notice more strips of cloth fluttering above the symbol. The scarf enables your character to fly (by flapping their cloak like wings), as long as there is embroidery remaining. When it runs And whee!out, approaching the aforementioned fluttering strips of cloth will recharge it, and you’ll notice several clumps of them dotted around the landscape. Moreover, finding more white symbols will gradually extend the scarf, thus allowing for longer bursts of flight, which is an infinitely more graceful means of locomotion than running around on spindly little legs.

Strips of cloth come in a lot of varieties, from small patches like the ones you encounter at the beginning, which resemble schools of fish, to long, seaweed-like bands and other living creatures which appear to be entirely made of cloth. They all Encounterhave aquatic characteristics, and, indeed, after a while, it seems more like your character is swimming rather than flying. Anything made of cloth will also recharge your character’s scarf. The most common type of creature vaguely resembles a dolphin. They emit soft chirping noises, tend to travel in packs and will occasionally carry your character on their backs, if asked.

Singing in the sandAsked? Why, yes. I did say there wasn’t a single spoken word in the game, but that doesn’t mean your character is mute. Pressing O will make them sing a note. The longer you keep O pressed before releasing it, the louder and stronger the note. This has various effects: it will call any nearby cloth creature for assistance, and, more generally, serves to interact with any cloth construct you encounter. Moreover, if you’re an inquisitive explorer, you’ll come across several murals which appear blank at first glance, but will reveal carvings or glyphs when ‘sung’ to. These might not make much sense at first (not the first one you find, at least), but they help to establish the game’s backstory.

Lady in whiteSpeaking of backstory, there’s another, more straightforward means of filling it in. The game is subdivided into several stages or levels, punctuated by platforms with a statue of a robed figure which looks a lot like your character. Interacting with these will trigger visions describing how the desert and the ruins came to be, as well as allowing you to progress to the next stage of the journey. It’s a simple, but all-too-sad tale of paradise lost, and every vision is steeped in a regretful, nostalgic aura.

Deep blueBoth of these feelings permeate the game, which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. Every stage of the journey has its own look, dynamic and prevalent emotion associated with it: wonder, awe, empathy, exhilaration, fear, enchantment, determination, as well as both hope and despair. And all this is achieved exclusively through exquisite visuals and sound. Austin Wintory’s music meshes in seamlessly with the environment and events, the prevalence of strings creating a poignant general atmosphere. Graphically, colours are vibrant, movement is fluid, and the omnipresent sand ends up becoming an entity of its own, more akin to water. You may notice that your character ‘surfs’ down steep dunes, and there is an absolutely breathtaking episode involving what can only be described as Stream of golda rushing river of sand, turning to liquid gold in the sunlight. This is immediately followed by a trek through some menacing, dark tunnels with a decidedly aquatic atmosphere, even though there isn’t a drop of water involved, culminating in a luminous swim through the air. And the final sequence…well, I’ll just leave you with the word ‘transcendental’.

Once you’ve finished the game, the first level becomes a hub: you can access any stage from the circular arena right before the first vision statue. Moreover, a group of stones on the lower right of this arena keeps track of all the white symbols Ghostlyyou’ve found across all playthroughs. Should you find all 21, a clump of seaweed-like cloth will appear nearby, enabling you to turn your character’s cloak white (like the figures in the end-of-stage visions). This white cloak has a longer default scarf, which also regenerates automatically, thus making your character more autonomous and more mobile. What’s more, every time you finish the game (up to three), more embroidery is added to the regular red cloak.

Journey has another peculiarity: you can play it offline or online, and depending on which you choose, it will be a vastly different experience. If you play offline, you’ll obviously be on your own. If you play online, you will run across other characters during your explorations. Outwardly, they look exactly like your own, give or take some embroidery or a white cloak. Other than that, you have no clue of who they are and no Travelling companionsmeans to interact with them except by ‘singing’. While this may appear awkward and restrictive at first, you’ll quickly find that a wordless camaraderie tends to develop on its own, based on that most primal of sensations: the feeling of another living creature keeping you company. There’s even a physical manifestation of this, as walking close together will enable your characters to recharge each other’s scarves. If you manage to make it all the way through the game with one person, that companionship will definitely be both valuable and welcome in the final stages. I was even surprised at how distressed I was to lose my first companion at that point, although this may have also been due to the circumstances in which it happened. A list of the usernames of every person you bumped into during your journey is displayed after the credits roll, but there’s no indication of who was which. Overall, this upholds the impression that you’ve just shared something universally human with a stranger. That is, of course, provided the people you encounter do travel with you; some will just run by on their own merry way. As a side-note, if you are with a companion for the final end-of-stage vision, it will reflect that fact, which I found to be a thoughtful little detail.

GloryAll in all, I have no real criticism about Journey. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may find it too short, too cryptic, too contemplative, too simple, too restrictive in terms of online options or even lacking long-term replay value. I, however, was left with nothing but a warm, bemused melancholy after the credits finished rolling…and after the wave of goosebumps I got from the song which accompanied them (“I Was Born for This”) subsided. And if only for that, I’m happy to have had this experience. A truly unforgettable game.

Snakes for breakfast, frogs for lunch

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Ahh, my favourite MGS game. Which may be odd, since it features several noteworthy differences from the rest of the series: a) it’s mostly set outdoors in a jungle, b) it doesn’t involve Metal Gear as a final opponent, and c) it includes some gameplay elements that are either new or haven’t been reused since. Heck, it doesn’t even feature Solid Snake.

"Badass" is his middle nameLet me qualify that last statement: it doesn’t feature Solid Snake in name only. The protagonist is Naked Snake (…no comment), who will later become known as Big Boss, arch-nemesis and biological ‘father’ of Solid (and Liquid and Solidus). If you’ve played the first two games, you’ll know that they’re not so much his children as his clones, so essentially, you’re controlling a character who looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake, and behaves pretty much like him too. And everyone calls him Snake anyway.

The main opponent is not Metal Gear simply because it hadn’t been invented at the time. Its predecessor is involved, though, bearing the much more pedestrian name of The woman in chargeShagohod (literally “which moves by walking” in Russian). The game is set in Cold War USSR and involves Snake’s former mentor–known as The Boss–defecting to the Soviets, while he has to prevent a nuclear incident from escalating into outright war and rescue a Soviet scientist who had defected to the US but was subsequently used as a bargaining chip to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. This setting serves to increase the series’ similarity to a Bond film. This is further enhanced by the inclusion of a hammy, Bondesque theme song with hilariously preposterous lyrics like “someday you go through the rain, and someday you dine on a tree frog”.

This brings us to the main gameplay mechanic and the reason behind the game’s title. Since Snake gets dumped in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and his gun, he has to rely on the local flora and fauna to survive. In addition to his Life Gourmet menumeter, he has a Stamina meter, which gradually depletes and affects his aim accuracy, among other things. The only way to recover Stamina is to find some grub. However, to complicate matters, not all foodstuffs have the same nutritional value. Some are downright poisonous (this, however, can be used against enemies), some Snake just doesn’t like the taste of and therefore won’t recover much Stamina from (but he can get used to the taste over time and even grow to like it), and some require skill to catch (cf. Gavials or the elusive LegendaryTsuchinoko). Other foodstuffs, like the False Mango, have medicinal properties, and the Russian Glow Cap mushroom can even recharge batteries…which makes you wonder whether those nukes in the Shagohod aren’t leaking or something. One thing to take into consideration, however, is the fact that, although Snake can catch up to three live animals, he has no way of actually preserving food, meaning that it will spoil after a while (signalled by flies appearing on its menu icon). Specifically, as the game has an internal clock, if you quit and come back to that save later, you’ll be guaranteed to find every non-industrial food item spoiled. And while I must applaud the game’s realism, it can become aggravating to constantly renew your food supplies.

Instant diagnosisI mentioned medicinal properties, and this is another feature specific to the game: Snake can get seriously wounded (eg. break a bone) or poisoned, which will affect his Life meter until treated. Each type of injury requires a specific treatment routine (eg. disinfecting or suturing). Again, bonus points for realism, but it does mean that you have to keep an eye on your medical supplies.

UnsuspectingOther than this, the controls are very similar to previous games, so you won’t have any difficulties if you’re a veteran of the series. One difference is the absence of a radar, due to the fact that the game is set in the ‘60s. Instead, you can use a motion detector system, which basically performs the same function. However, the stealth element has received a significant upgrade with the addition of camouflage. Snake can change his outfit and even his face paint to blend in with his surroundings. These are indicated atBricked the top right of the screen, alongside a camouflage percentage. Obviously, the higher the better, and crouching or lying down will increase the percentage further. You can find new outfits and face paints as you progress, and picking the right one in any given situation is a definite tactical plus. Although you do have to wonder where exactly he stows all those outfits (in particular, the crocodile cap…).

Femme fataleAs far as characters are concerned, the game fares a lot better than its immediate predecessor. For starters, you’ve got EVA, who acts as a competent sidekick for Snake, even though her status as the game’s official ‘femme fatale’ wouldn’t have been diminished if she’d zipped up her overalls at least a little bit more. The villain department can also stand proud. The Boss is a strong, charismatic presence throughout the game, miles ahead of anything Solidus Snake could ever hope to achieve. Unfortunately, the game ends up contriving a completely ludicrous reason (that is NOT how a caeserean works) for her to flash some cleavage as well during Snake’s inevitable confrontation with her. It’s a dent to her credibility, but as it occurs through no actual fault of her character, I just try to ignore it.

Moreover, not only does a young Revolver Ocelot make an appearance (although he’s rather annoying this time around), but the familiar group of sub-bosses is more memorable than the MGS2 ones. The Boss used to be part of a Soviet special forces squad, the Cobra Unit. Each member of the unit is named after a specific emotion which they associate with combat (eg. The Fury or The Pain) and has a characteristic way of fighting to go with it. Special mention Pretty sly for an old guygoes to The End, the extremely old sniper, whose boss battle involves Snake trying to sneak up on him over three separate areas. This is rendered more difficult by the fact that he’s an expert at camouflage, can recover stamina from sunlight, relocates every time Snake shoots him and has a parrot which acts as a spotter. However, the game’s internal clock can be used to humorous advantage here. If you save during the battle and come back to the game after a week, The End will have died of old age.

Each MGS game has its own theme: the first one revolved around genetics, the second around memetic engineering. Snake Eater deals with moral and cultural relativism. This is exemplified by the various defections throughout the game and drives home (with a baseball bat) the fact that different sides of a conflict result from different cultural backgrounds and circumstances, and that those circumstances can change. This is particularly relevant for Naked Snake himself, since he will be considered as a villain in later games. I found this to be a more compelling thematic than the two preceding ones, even though it’s unavoidably treated with the same overdramatic flair as anything in MGS. And, of course, silly humour still abounds. For instance, the Target practicecollectibles in this game no longer include the usual dog tags, but instead…toy frogs, named Kerotans, scattered in semi-hidden locations throughout the game. Shooting all of them (and there’s a handful of infuriatingly difficult ones towards the end) will grant you the Kerotan codename at the end of the game, as well as the Stealth camo (which makes Snake invisible) for subsequent replays.

I must, however, mention something which I found particularly grating. The game does a surprisingly good job with its Russian. Most of the place names are believable, and they’re even transcribed correctly on the loading screens 99% of the time. Even most of the character names are realistic. But then…the game throws the ludicrous “Adamska” at you during the final cutscene. And they were so close to getting it right…Oh, and one more thing: this game features the most incomprehensible caesarean ever. You’ll see what I mean.

No parleyBe that as it may, I must still commend Snake Eater. It delivers everything which makes MGS fun and does so in spades. It’s possible that the stronger Bond parallels made me enjoy it more, but whatever the reason, I had a blast playing this. Especially due to the fact that I’d seen the infamous “Crab Battle” video prior to starting.

In fact, if at all possible, try to get your hands on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, a remake released two years after the original and also the version included in the HD Collection. Not only does the game now include a free third person camera (invaluable), but also extra camo items. Additionally, a separate disc titled Persistence features various extras, such as a Boss Duel Mode, a Secret Theatre featuring Computers galorehumorous cutscenes, a silly minigame called Snake vs Monkey, but, more importantly, the first two games in the saga, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which were previously all but unavailable outside Japan. Honestly, they’re old games, and not really much to write home about, but if you’re interested in the origins of MGS, then this is for you. The disc also features Metal Gear Online, a multiplayer mode which has since become obsolete, so it can safely be disregarded. Finally, the European edition of Subsistence (and the limited US edition) includes a third disc titled Existence, which basically strings together all the game’s cutscenes, condensing it into something like a film format. For people who want an even more cinematic experience.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

High-speed stunts and fictitious pastries

The culprit: Portal (PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Whee!Sleeper hits are great. Not only are they a proof of inventiveness from game developers, who, despite not banking on commercial success, decide to try something new, but also a testimony to the players’ curiosity. In short: think outside the box, play outside the box. That’s how innovations occur.

Portal was just one such sleeper hit. Released as part of The Orange Box package by Valve, it is set in the same universe as the Half-Life series, at some point in time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. However, it’s not required to have played either one of those. Portal is a largely self-contained experience and works perfectly fine on its own. You’ll probably miss some references, but it’s nothing dramatic.

She never agreed to thisThe premise is a simple one: you are put in the metaphorical shoes (she’s actually barefoot, with only some leg springs for support) of Chell, a young woman who somehow ended up as a test subject in a strange facility named Aperture Science, all glass walls and pristine white surfaces. She is awoken by a robotic female voice, an AI which identifies herself as GLaDOS, and informs her that she must make her way through a series of test chambers, to ultimately be rewarded with “cake and grief counselling”. She then proceeds to instruct and advise her on getting through the tests…in her own way.

Open doorsChell’s available commands are pretty basic: she can crouch, jump, pick up objects or press switches. However, the core of the gameplay is the clever use of portals: oval-shaped holes which can be created on almost any flat surface with the help of a portal gun (or Handheld Portal Device), which Chell acquires a couple of rooms in. There are two types of portals: a blue one (primary) and an orange one (secondary). Chell can freely pass between them and reposition them at will, and if they’re not situated on the same plane, she’ll be reoriented head up in relation to the gravity upon exiting. The only thing she can’t do is fire a portal through another portal. The idea is straightforward, but the possibilities are endless, allowing for creative use of space to resolve what may at first appear to be impossible conundrums. You could have her put a portal on a wall and one on a ceiling through the door of a different room, for example. And don’t worry about falling from too high: as long as it’s a floor Chell is landing on, the leg springs will take care of it. This is a wonderfully adaptive system, and it wasn’t long before I found myself ‘thinking with portals’, as the advertising for the game puts it, and hopping my way through the various rooms with relative ease. I say ‘relative’ because, while it may be easy to figure out the principle behind a certain puzzle, the execution may require some fine-tuning, as well as some top-notch reflexes.

Let's see you figure this outOf course, if that’s all there was to it, the game would be too easy. So it also presents Chell with impediments, such as moving platforms, timed switches, pools of acid, High Energy Pellets, which she’ll need to redirect, or Material Emancipation Grills, which will not only vaporise any solid object that’s not the portal gun (although they have also been known to ‘emancipate’ fillings and teeth…), but also reset any previously placed portals. Chell will also encounter sentry turrets, which, despite greeting her in disarmingly polite, childish-sounding voices (“hello, friend”) will attempt to shoot her on sight, intoning guilt-inducing messages such as “I don’t hate you” or “no hard feelings” when she destroys them. To counteract all these obstacles, Chell only The one and onlyhas her wits, her portal gun and Weighted Storage Cubes. These are…well, exactly what the description says: large cubes meant to be used as props for solving puzzles (usually by being placed on switches). Although one of them, the Companion Cube, designated by a large pink heart drawn on each of its sides, may come to hold a special place in Chell’s tribulations.

Are you still there?Portal’s other major distinguishing feature is the delightfully quirky black humour pervading the game, the great majority of which is dispensed by GLaDOS, who also sings during the ending credits. On the surface, it sounds like she’s providing helpful advice. However, when you hear things like “while safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High-Energy Pellets seen to the left of the chamber can and have caused permanent disabilities, such as vaporisation”, you may very well start asking yourself questions. This, alongside the friendly killer turrets, the sometimes less-than-reassuring instruction diagrams found at the beginning of each test chamber as well as the strange scribblings which start to crop up in hidden nooks towards the end of the game, all ends up creating a unique blend of the worrying and the hilarious.

The main portion of the storyline is fairly easily cleared, once you get the hang of the portal mechanics. However, you also have access to the Advanced Chambers and the Challenge Mode under the Bonus Maps heading of the main menu. The former are chambers 13 to 18 from the main game, redesigned to be more difficult. The Challenge Mode takes place in those same chambers (now identical to the main game), except with one of three restrictions: clear the chamber placing the least You take the cake!portals, taking the least steps or the least time. Each chamber has its own set limit for each of these categories (represented by a cake on the tally screen), reaching or beating which will grant you a gold medal. There are also limits for the silver medal and the bronze medal. And, of course, there are achievements/trophies involved. By order of difficulty, I’d say the “least portals” challenges are the easiest, while the “least time” ones are–and by far–the hardest, especially for people playing on a console. Moreover, folks on the Xbox 360 actually got their own version of the game, called Portal: Still Alive, which contains a whopping 14 additional test chambers.

Ad infinitumAll in all, Portal is great fun. However, for the sake of providing some criticism, I must say that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. There is an interesting backstory to the game (which has since been explored in a comic entitled Lab Rat and in the sequel, Portal 2), and GLaDOS may be a wellspring of repartee, but this can only go so far when, in point of fact, you’re being made to do the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, the game is rather short, so you won’t have time to get bored on your first time through. It does, however, mean that it suffers in the replayability department, since, apart from collecting hidden radios, it’s the same old show. Still, I won’t be a party-pooper: in spite of this, Portal remains one of the most original games released in the past decade, and the premise behind it is Mmm, cake...wonderfully inventive. GLaDOS has become a fan-favourite (for good reason), and chances are you’ve encountered the “cake is a lie” meme somewhere at least once. In short, give it a try. It’s a blast. Oh, and did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls?