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”.

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.

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?

Somewhere beyond the sea

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

I’m not usually a big fan of shooters. For me, an enjoyable game includes at least one of three things: a solid storyline, well-developed characters or a unique atmosphere, none of which tend to be a shooter’s strong point. Besides, blowing up heads isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Still, I’d heard enough praise for Bioshock that I became curious and decided to give it a shot (pun fully intended). It’s an FPS alright, and a pretty violent one at that. But it does have two of the aforementioned things: an elaborate storyline and a captivating atmosphere.

UnderlitThe game takes place in 1960. You control Jack, a bloke on a transatlantic flight, which, as his luck would have it, crashes. He comes to in the middle of the ocean, the only survivor of the catastrophe, and realises that there’s a lighthouse nearby (yes, in the middle of the ocean). Inside, he finds a bathysphere which takes him to an underwater metropolis called Rapture. As he gradually discovers through various recordings left behind, the city was founded in secret after WWII on the principle of free enterprise by a guy called Andrew Ryan, who got fed up with both capitalism and communism. So he gathered the best and brightest in all domains, and gave them free rein to create and innovate. Around 1950, a substance named ADAM was discovered, allowing for selective rewriting of a person’s genetic code, ranging from regenerative properties, to cosmetic enhancements, to being able to shoot fireballs. It was produced in small quantities by a sea slug, but implanting said slug into human hosts (specifically, little girls) dramatically increased the yield. This led to the creation of Little Sisters: girls ‘repurposed’ to produce ADAM. The problem was that ADAM abuse caused dependence, mental damage and severe physical deformities, gradually Unlikely paircreating a violent substrate of the population (Splicers) which fought over it. Eventually, Little Sisters were sent to gather ADAM from their corpses, but since that exposed them to attack, Big Daddies were created: heavily altered human beings, mentally conditioned to protect the girls with their lives. However, this didn’t prevent civil war, which erupted in 1959, and Rapture, as Jack finds it, is a wrecked battleground where Splicers roam the streets. Stranded after his bathysphere is destroyed, he’s contacted by a guy calling himself Atlas (a reference to Ayn Rand, whose work heavily influenced the game) who offers to help him escape in return for assistance in rescuing his family.

Somebody hit the lightsRapture is an original creation and a unique setting, combining eerie beauty with nightmarish desolation, and managing to be both grandiose and claustrophobic at the same time; a drowned, fallen Eden. It has a dated charm to it, with its art deco architecture (think Rockefeller Center), old 1950s-styled posters on the walls, and a soundtrack composed of 1950s music. Of course, all this has been copiously damaged: there are fires, busted walls and leaks all over the place. Splicers wander Bunny hug!among the rubble, chattering to themselves, ruins of human beings in torn cocktail outfits and masks, work blues or fishermen’s overalls. And then, every once in a while, you’ll hear the heavy stomp and bellow of a Big Daddy or the creepy singsong of a Little Sister, before glimpsing the pair trudging around a corner: a hulking, unnatural form in a diving suit and a scrawny girl with glowing yellow eyes, a ragged dress and a long syringe attached to a milk bottle.

Dali's evil twinDuring his stay in Rapture, Jack will get up close and personal with its inhabitants (the sane, the insane, the mutated and the gleefully bonkers, such as Sander Cohen) and sample the local delicacies. Read: shoot things in the face and shoot up on ADAM. Splicers constitute the bulk of enemies, and while Big Daddies aren’t hostile unless Jack actively attacks them, you can probably guess that he’ll be required to do so at some point (and it is, at first, a hefty challenge which requires preparation). He has access to a wide selection of weapons, ranging from a wrench, to a shotgun, to a grenade launcher, but also a plethora of Plasmids and Gene Tonics, which can either be found lying around or purchased with ADAM at Gatherer’s Gardens machines. Plasmids grant offensive Electric veinsabilities, like shooting fireballs, lightning or even bees, telekinetically throwing objects or hypnotising Big Daddies, and when you first acquire them, you are treated to an amusing cartoon-drawn ad explaining their use. They also require a constant supply of EVE, a modified version of ADAM, which is a blue substance found in large syringes (let’s not even get into hygiene concerns). Gene Tonics are passive enhancements, which come in three varieties: Combat Tonics enhance Jack’s fighting abilities (eg. Armored Shell reduces physical damage taken by 15%), Physical Tonics augment his overall condition (eg. Medical Expert makes First Aid Kits 20% more effective) and Engineering Tonics boost his competence with machines (eg. Speedy Hacker allows more time for hacking). Because Rapture is populated with a variety of those. There are gun turrets and security cameras (which summon gun bots when they detect Jack), both of which can be hacked to use against Splicers. Health Stations (which offer an HP refill for a price, but can also be used by Splicers) can be hacked to reduce their price and make them lethal to Splicers. Where's Mario when you need him?Vending machines, which sell food and ammo, can also be hacked to reduce their prices, and the odd safe can yield up sizeable amounts of loot. Hacking is achieved through a minigame, which requires building a pipe to direct fluid from one end of a grid to another. This isn’t always easy, and a failure will result in an electric shock and some bots being summoned.

PolaroidAnother item which will give Jack an edge in combat is the research camera. Once found, it allows him to take pictures of enemies and bots, which reveal their weaknesses. Each picture is rated according to its quality (well-framed, close-up, action shot, multiple enemies). Dead enemies are worth less, and photographing the same enemy gradually yields fewer points, prompting Jack to go find fresh blood after a while. There are five ‘levels’ of research for each subject: levels one, three and five grant damage bonuses, while levels two and four grant Gene Tonics.

Not the kind of bank you hold upWeapons can be upgraded at Power to the People stations, while Gene Tonics and Plasmids can be equipped at Gene Banks. Moreover, junk items (like tubes or wire) can be combined to create rare ammo at U-Invent machines. Jack’s HP and EVE supplies are indicated by a red and blue bar at the top of the screen and can be replenished either with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes (of which he can carry up to nine each, when fully upgraded) or with various foodstuffs and items, either purchased, found lying around or looted off enemy corpses. Snacks (crisps and cakes) and bandages will replenish HP, coffee will replenish EVE, Pep Bars will replenish both, cigarettes will replenish EVE at the cost of some HP, while alcohol will do the reverse. Until you find the Booze Hound Gene Tonic, that is, which will turn alcohol into the most profitable resource in the game (making it replenish EVE instead of draining it). It won’t prevent Jack from getting woozy if he imbibes too much though, so make sure he’s not about to be jumped by a Splicer before going on a bender. Finally, there are a number of Vita-Chambers dotted around, which will revive Jack should he get stomped. More Resurrection centralimportantly, this won’t regenerate enemies, so he can just pick up where he left off. If you’re looking for a challenge though, set the game to the Hard or Survivor difficulty and turn the Vita-Chambers off. There are trophies/achievements for that, appropriately dubbed “Brass Balls” and “I Chose the Impossible”, respectively.

Splattering Splicers is all well and good, but, to spice things up, the game throws a moral dilemma at you. Soon after his arrival, Jack runs into Brigid Tenenbaum, the woman who originally created the Little Sisters. However, she gradually began to feel remorse and decided to save the girls, killing the slugs inside them with a special Plasmid. She offers it to Jack and urges him to save the Little Sisters he encounters–which entails killing their Big Daddies, affectionately dubbed “Mr Bubbles”–, promising a reward. Atlas, on the other hand, tells him to simply “harvest” them (ie. forcibly rip out the slugs, which kills them), as that will yield more ADAM. You can thus take two Toasty Mr Bubblesdifferent paths through the game for two different endings: either save the Little Sisters (which results in Tenenbaum gifting you with surplus ADAM, as well as Plasmids and Tonics) or kill them all. Personally, I could never do the latter: simply hearing a Little Sister crying after you take down her Big Daddy (“wake up, Mr Bubbles…”) is enough to push all my pity buttons.

Overall, I enjoyed Bioshock. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it delivers on its promises and does it in style. The dark atmosphere and moral implications of the storyline both Come one, come all!do a good job of enhancing the FPS experience. Rapture is an aesthetic treat, and the Big Daddy-Little Sister pair has become iconic. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea though, and if you’re easily squicked, you’ll probably want to give it a wide berth. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something different from a run-of-the-mill bullet-fest, look no further. And if you haven’t had quite enough, the Challenge Rooms DLC provides some optional missions to put your survival instincts to the test.

Time and time again

The culprit: Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

The fine art of farniente

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

SerenissimaLet’s get this straight out there: Assassin’s Creed II is, quite simply, a better game than its predecessor. Great care has obviously been paid to varying the gameplay, streamlining old and new features, and enhancing the storyline. The plot is set in a more famous, and therefore more recognisable, environment (Renaissance Italy, rather than Medieval Syria and Palestine), and introduces a flashier protagonist, with the end result that it tends to overshadow its predecessor. And yet, in spite of the first game’s flaws, I could never shake the feeling that the second opus had lost part of its soul under all that bling. Don’t get me wrong: ACII is a lot of fun. But there were moments when I found myself missing the leaner, sterner world of its older brother.

The game starts exactly where AC left off. Desmond–he of the infinite charisma (not)–is rescued from the Abstergo lab where he was being held by Lucy, the assistant in his previous memory-delving adventures who actually turns out to be an Assassin, and two of her comrades. They take him to a secret location and hook him up to a better Animus You want me to do what?machine to send him into the memories of a more recent ancestor, the Florentine nobleman Ezio Auditore, in the hopes that it’ll help them find a Piece of Eden. The story is still split between Ezio’s sequences and Desmond’s, and the latter now at least has more partners in crime. Rebecca’s one of those hacker-types–short hair, funky clothes, headphones–with a perky, upbeat attitude, while Shaun is the prim, British-accented history geek with a degree in deadpan snark. Lucy’s also gotten an upgrade: from unremarkable lab mouse to…goggle-eyed and fish-lipped trendy babe in skinny jeans and a form-hugging top. Yeah…The modern-day sequences now also include a chance for Desmond to put all the moves he learned in his virtual escapades to the test. Although, seeing him perform those acrobatics in his baggy jeans, hoodie and sneakers was distinctly less glamourous than long white assassin robes and leather boots. Doesn’t help that he’s still completely unremarkable as a character. Just as Altaïr stole the show in AC, Ezio also steals the show this time around.

As has already been mentioned, the three operative words are variety, streamlining and enhancement.  And boy, is there a LOT of the former. The new and upgraded Animus features a historical database, which provides bite-sized info about notorious landmarks and characters. Ezio has access to more weapons (a second hidden blade, maces, smoke bombs…even a prototype gun) and armour, all of which he can upgrade, or, in the case of armour, repair, as it gets damaged in combat (which is a distinctly annoying feature). He also has more acrobatics at his command, such as assassinating targets When all else fails, use waterwhile hiding in bales of hay. He can disarm enemies in combat, poison them, toss sand in their faces to disorient them; he can also ride gondolas, and, most satisfyingly, swim. Which is handy, since one of the cities he visits is Venice. The conveniently placed groups of monks which allowed Altaïr to inconspicuously enter guarded areas have been replaced with various factions that Ezio can hire for the same purpose: courtesans, who can distract guards by shaking booty, thieves, who can steal their stuff to have them give chase, or mercenaries, who will simply go in and bash some heads. There is a day and night cycle, which, apart from varying the atmosphere, also comes into play in certain missions. Ezio now also has a homebase in the small Tuscan town of Monteriggioni, which he can renovate and upgrade (notably by buying famous Renaissance paintings) to earn regular income, as the game now features an economic They never said I'd have to do thiiiiiiiis!system, complete with merchants and even street doctors. There are a lot more sidequests, in particular the Templar Lairs and Assassin Tombs, which consist of some advanced platforming and reward Ezio with money and, in the case of the latter, special seals which eventually grant access to Altaïr’s black Master Assassin outfit (yum). There are also some strange blips in the Animus interface, which appear as shining glyphs on buildings and allow Desmond to solve some puzzles left behind by Subject 16, his defunct predecessor at Abstergo.

Adorkable geniusMuch like Desmond, Ezio is also surrounded by a more varied and more interesting cast of secondary characters. Among those, the biggest highlight is, undoubtedly, a young Leonardo da Vinci, with whom Ezio becomes good friends, and who helps him decipher some of Altaïr’s documents which he fortuitously finds. Leo is fun, chatty, endlessly enthusiastic, scatterbrained and just eminently huggable. And, thanks to the new system of cutscene interaction (an upgrade of AC’s camera angle changes), whereby you can be prompted to press some buttons to affect Ezio’s actions during some cutscenes, you can do just that. And beware Leo’s kicked-puppy eyes if you miss that hug! Other memorable additions include Caterina Sforza, the willful, intelligent and crafty ruler of Forli, or Rosa, a gutsy, very pretty and very foul-mouthed thief whom Ezio encounters in Venice. On a less serious note, there’s also Uncle Mario, whose claim to fame is the infamous “it’s-a me, Mario!” shout-out.

Noooo, there's THREE of them!As far as streamlining is concerned, the controls are more fluid, and there seem to be fewer bugs. The horrible beggar women have been replaced by the no less persistent, but much more amusing minstrels. Those will run up to Ezio and sing utter nonsense (“here comes a brave signoooreeee”), both hampering his movements and drawing attention to him until he either outruns them, knocks their lutes out of their hands or throws some money on the ground to send his immediate entourage, both rich and poor, frantically scrabbling for it. Flag collection still exists, but has been pared down to reduce tedium. Ezio now also has a notoriety meter, which rises when he performs risky or illegal acts in front of guards, and gradually makes him easier to detect. It can be reduced either by ripping off wanted posters, bribing town criers or assassinating corrupt officials. Oh, and a small detail which nevertheless makes me happy: Ezio has an accent. I missed that with Altaïr.

Horseback chopFinally, we come to storyline enhancement. Where Altaïr’s plotline basically boiled down to “here’s a hit list, do your worst”, Ezio’s tale is more linear, but also more personal, growing from revenge into commitment to a greater cause. Paradoxically though, this kind of presentation makes Ezio’s targets less memorable. Sure, there’s his first victim and the big bad at the end, but the people he kills in between? I couldn’t name them to save my life, and this despite the fact that their portraits are displayed in Monteriggioni after the fact. By contrast, I can still remember every one of Altaïr’s targets, and the unique settings for their assassinations. The other problem of the storyline is that it spans about twenty years, rather than just a couple of You call this old?!months. I’m sure the idea was to give it more scope, but it just doesn’t work very well. The only character who shows any signs of aging is Ezio, and even that is limited to…growing a beard. The only other indication that time has passed is the date which appears onscreen between chapters. Sometimes, the temporal gaps are downright baffling. Surely, someone with such a burning desire for revenge wouldn’t spend so much time doing…what exactly?

This brings us to the inevitable Altaïr vs Ezio showdown. The general opinion appears to be largely in favour of the latter, and this is easily understood: he’s depicted as far more human. He’s fiery, cocky, has a sense of humour and, upholding the most typical cliché about Italian men, is a total playboy. In short, the dashing rogue type. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this kind of personality didn’t quite befit an assassin. Altaïr may have been an arrogant jerk, but he was efficient, focussed, shady, and, to me, a lot more believable in his role. Ezio…just spends a whole lot of time faffing about. Defending a Hey, Lorenzo, d'you think I could maybe do my own stuff now?lady from an importunate suitor? Ezio to the rescue! A thief wants some racing practice? Ezio’s happy to oblige! And, what’s most detrimental to his integrity: his involvement with Lorenzo de Medici, whom he saves from an attempt on his life, only to become…his lackey. Lorenzo wants anything done? Ezio’s on it! No wonder the game has to span twenty years.

This, in turn, showcases the flipside of the lavish amounts of variety in the game. Weapons? All you ever really need are the hidden blades. Upgrading the villa? Ezio ends up sitting on a mountain of money he doesn’t know what to do with. Helper factions? They all amount to the same thing. Random sidequests? After a while, you He has his own way of walking off into the sunsetstart forgetting what your main goal in the storyline was. And much as I enjoyed running around familiar cities and scaling monuments I’d visited in real life, sightseeing isn’t all the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Still, don’t let this deter you: the game is definitely a terrific romp.