This past month I played 3 games on the Playstation 3. See how I have amusingly combined their titles to make the name of this post sound like a badly translated Anime series? I will now discuss them in the order of playing. Simple as that:
Overlord – Raising Hell
A dark lord a la Sauron (and owing not a little in terms of styling to Peter Jackson, not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily) is defeated by a load of squeaky-clean heroes, and many years later returns from the the dead to wreak vengeance upon them. Yes, we’ve been here before, except in this version you are the dark lord in question, and the heroes have become even more evil than you were. The halfling is a monstrously overweight fascist, the paladin has become a pervert, the dwarf got so greedy that he invaded the elven realm and enslaved the fair folk, and as for the wizard … man, it’s always the wizard you’ve got to watch …
Anyway, as overlord you control a load of mischievous minions with varying powers, and need to grind assorted cliche fantasy lands (halfling hills, elven woods, dwarven mines) under your spiky heel and return your dark tower to its former sinister glory. Naturally, ever since that pathetic excuse for a piece of rubbish disappointment, Black and White (a game which bore the tagline, ‘find out who you really are’, to which my answer was, ‘bored’) there needs to be moral choices. So you have the option of evil, or really evil. Force the peasants to do your bidding, or slaughter them to a man? It’s a laugh, this game, it really is, with nice graphics and great design throughout. The designers obviously have a deep understanding of cheesy fantasy mores as frequently expressed in the video game scene, and take great glee in taking the piss out of them. This being an expanded version, there are also a load of hell-like abysses over which you can extend your totalitarian dominion. These really are pretty funny at times, something you don’t see often enough in computer games, that’s for sure. A giant incompetent theatrical show portraying the destruction of the elven race to an audience of bored demons. Death rocking out on his scythe while giving it the metal fingers. Using a paladin as a giant mop. Well, maybe you had to be there…
Anyway, a nice little game with which to while away a few evenings, nothing too mind blowing, but does what it says on the tin, nicely styled, and has a wicked sense of humour, especially for those of us in the fantasy business. 7/10
Soul Calibur IV
Man, I loved Soul Edge when it first came out in the arcade. To those who don’t know, it’s a sword-fighting beat ’em up, in essence. At a time when 3d meant virtua-fighter and characters as blocky as the Thing, Soul Edge really did look frickin’ amazing, with revolutionary texture, gravity and detail. And the gameplay was new and exciting too, with real variety to the different characters. I used to run down to Wizard Video on Harrow Road (from whence I also rented lots and lots of crap sub-John Woo oriental action films) with pound coins in my hot little hands and hammer that arcade machine with limited competence but great enthusiasm. Ah, happy days. Later, when it came out on the Playstation 1 (called Soul Blade for reasons I’ve never understood), I played the hell out of it with mates. It was almost like Street Fighter II all over again. Ah, happy days. Again.
I had Soul Calibur II, I think it was, on the PS2, and it was good, but it didn’t quite seem to have the magic, so I was keen to see whether they’d pushed things forward on the PS3. Have they? Not really.
The graphics undoubtedly get better with each iteration – better shading, better textures, all the stuff we expect from next gen and yada yada. I must say though, that I kind of feel some of the personality has leaked out of this series with each iteration. The female characters in particular seem to have become more and more identical wide-eyed big-boobed manga dolls, like they’ve all visited the same crap cosmetic surgeon. I mean, they never covered up, but these days several of them seem to sport costumes that would make a stripper blush, let alone an expert in armed combat. And though they’ve added more characters (frankly too many, to my mind) the old favourites don’t seem to have changed much in terms of moves and movement. They even do the same victory celebrations and say the same tough putdowns as they did not one game ago, but two, only now the camera angles appear to be a lot less varied and inventive. It feels like the developers are phoning it in. I remember the first version of Tekken that came out on the PS2 – can’t remember the name of it, but basically it was identical to Tekken 3 with better textures. This game feels like a similar upgrade (or lack of one), but at least they had the excuse there that the console just came out. PS3’s been out a while, and this is the best they can come up with? Bit weak.
This version also doesn’t feature the cornucopia of one player modes that earlier ones had. The plotting (such as it is) is cursory at best, the one player experience feels … a bit dumb. Yeah, I know, it’s all about the internet, and that makes a lot of sense. I mean, what kind of saddo plays beat ’em ups on their own? Erm… [nervously raises hand] But still, I don’t see any reason to make the one player actively worse. You get into the one player enough, maybe then you decide to be embarrassed by the army of brilliant twelve year olds waiting sweaty palmed to destroy you.
I loved the first of these games. It’s still fun bashing the crap out of assorted freaks with a sword, and you still have the most ludicrously over the top voice-over guy in the world spouting magnificent gibberish like, “transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold!” which is a plus, but I don’t think the series has got better, overall. It’s got … the same. 5/10
Uncharted – Drake’s Fortune
Well, now, talk about saving the best til last. This just came out on platinum on the PS3 (half price, that is), and I hadn’t really heard much about it (why would I, since I have a two year old and almost never leave the house?) but it turns out to be pretty much an object lesson in how to make a great game.
I guess you could describe it as a video-game Indiana Jones, or perhaps Tomb Raider with a sense of humour and much more sophisticated combat. Pretty much every aspect, from control system, to storyline, to music and sound, to design of the characters and settings, to the way the opening and loading screens look, hits the nail squarely on the head. Everything is beautifully smooth, intuitive, seamless. This is the polar opposite of designers phoning it in. This is a game in which every aspect has evidently been polished until it shines, huge effort has been expended to create a feeling of effortlessness (is that a word?)
There’s a great variety of settings and feels. Jungles, ancient tombs, flooded cities, crumbling forts, overgrown monasteries, cargo ships, even an abandoned U-boat pen. There’s also a good variety of gameplay – gun-based and hand-to-hand combat, running, jumping and climbing, exploration and puzzle solving. Some sequences near the end are genuinely scary, as well, as it steps briefly and very effectively into horror territory.
For a game that isn’t necessarily a full-on shooter the combat sections are excellent, fluid, exciting. Use of cover is slick and responsive, hand to hand fighting is neatly managed, enemy AI is impressive, and there’s a range of weaponry that’s interesting enough without getting in the way. Particularly good, oddly, is that you can’t carry more than two weapons at once and not that much ammunition, so you tend to just toss guns aside regularly and use whatever’s to hand – just like Indiana Jones would’ve done – rather
than feeling like you have to scrounge every spare shotgun shell as you often do with these sort of games. In combat, as everywhere else, the whole experience is improved immeasurably by the variety of animations and the way the personality of the main character constantly leaches through. He’ll cower behind walls under fire, he’ll fling himself from one crate to another with suitable desperation, he’ll say, “oh god, oh god, oh god,” when a grenade lands next to him, or quip, “that’ll hurt in the morning,” after butting some pirate off a cliff.
And it’s the personality of the whole thing that really lifts it. The three leads – everyman out of his depth tricky but basically decent main character, slimy old conman sidekick and spunky love-interest – are eminently likeable, the cut-scenes are well acted, involving, but not intensely over long (I’m looking at you, Snaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!) They look like real people (no enormous boobs in sight). They even kind of talk like real people. Or at least like actors from a good pulp action-adventure film, which is kind of the idea. This is one charming-ass game. Even the villains are kind of likeable. I played the whole thing with a smile on my face. I even started thinking I should make my characters more likeable. For about 10 seconds. But that’s a long time for me.
You could point to some trifling shortcomings, maybe. The climbing and jumping sections feel relatively straightforward, kind of obvious, and not particularly challenging, but perhaps that’s partly because the controls are so damn good and the character moves so smoothly. It feels like quite a linear game, with very little deviation offered from a set path. Plus the continue settings are pretty forgiving, on the whole, and it offers frequent hints, so the experienced gamer will no doubt find themselves tearing through it in double quick time. The result is the game is quite short (though it doesn’t necessarily feel small), but I guess there is a comparable upside in that the experience feels extra rich, packed with cinematic moments and very rarely frustrating or boring, and I’d certainly consider playing the whole thing through again on harder difficulty, which I don’t often feel in these days of limited time.
The whole thing bursts with personality, is full of detail without ever being finicky or fussy, and offers great, responsive, polished gameplay. I’m reluctant to give 10s out without due consideration, since I think for a 10 something needs to stand the test of time, feel like a classic in hindsight. But I’d say this has a good chance of getting there. Supposedly a sequel is in the pipeline. Here’s hoping this is the start of a long and beautiful series. 9/10, and we’ll see about that extra point …