Until Dawn

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On the face of it, Until Dawn might look like a bog-standard horror game indulging in far too many genre tropes for its own good, and in some ways, it is; from the masked antagonist to the recognisable set-up (eight friends, remote cabin etc), it’s not a narrative that’ll leave fans or casual dabblers of the genre in awe. But in some ways, it doesn’t need to. By allowing the player to control what happens to this hapless set of teenagers through quick time events, dialogue choices and your own potentially morbid desires, developer Supermassive games have crafted a clever, interactive and thoroughly engaging game.

As mentioned, the set-up isn’t anything out of the ordinary. After the mysterious deaths of his sisters a year earlier, bright young thing Josh invites seven friends back up to his family’s remote mountain cabin to mark the occasion. If you’re thinking this is a recipe for disaster, then give yourself a pat on the back, as a maelstrom of crap is most certainly on its way, although not before a relatively quiet first few hours. This slow start might prove too uneventful for some but it’s somewhat vital to the experience, with the game introducing its mechanics and fleshing out its key players. Without delving too deeply into this (at first glance) clichéd ragtag bunch of sexual promiscuity and overt bro-ness, Until Dawn does quite a decent job of developing each of the main cast to the point where your initial, unflattering first impressions are challenged, which will certainly make your experience of playing the game more interesting given that their lives are constantly in your hands.

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Which is great, considering that death is very much the game’s central theme. The intricacies of Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect system might seem slightly pretentious in the game’s opening explanation, but it has the stones to back it up; plenty of your actions during the game will have significant consequences further down the line. It pushes your perception of what doing the right thing in certain situations actually means, and puts you on the spot on several occasions where your choice could well result in one or more fatalities. The beauty of it is that through careful planning, you can tailor the experience to suit your own desires. If you fancy saving some of these characters but not others, you can. If total preservation is your thing then there’s a way that every character can last the night, or if you’re feeling particularly masochistic then there are a handful of ways for each character to die before the sun rises, each death scene more grizzly and graphic than the last.

Thankfully, Until Dawn doesn’t overdo it in that sense. This is absolutely a horror game and you’re never that far from a gory moment or two depending on your choices once you’re a good few hours in, but they’re not used to excess. The game’s actually more effective when it’s trying to make you uneasy, anyway, with much of its running time dedicated to exploring dark corridors and environments which only exacerbates the sense that something terrible is always lurking around the corner, even when it isn’t.

As mentioned, this story won’t be remembered as one of Unit Dawn’s strongest elements. The intention appears to have been to set up a somewhat generic horror tale but with the added spice of directing what happens to the cast, and Supermassive Games have absolutely succeeded in that respect partially because of how carefully they’ve crafted their gameplay. It’s not particularly difficult by any stretch of the imagination, mostly boiling down to walking, using the right stick to select conversation options and interacting with the 100+ clues scattered around the game’s environments with plenty of prophetic totems awaiting discovery and offering guidance or warnings of upcoming danger.

In the game’s more high-pressured moments, control of movement is taken away with your ability to react to quick time events or holding your controller incredibly still during moments of tremendous peril determining your success (if you feel like succeeding, of course). In some ways, it’s welcome that the game doesn’t demand too much from the player in these tense scenarios purely because it spends so much time trying to unsettle you, what with its lack of light in almost every single building you enter, from log cabins to cable car shacks to signal towers. Elsewhere, the constant use off snow and shadow add a real menace to a forest that you’ll find yourself wandering or stumbling through on more than one occasion, with its ever-present layer of darkness creating a suffocating atmosphere.

It’s a great package, to be honest. The presumably extensive motion capture work carried out in order to bring the main cast to life has yielded a great, natural looking game with sharp facial animations and believable performances, which only adds to the high level of presentation. It’s a bloody, tense and frequently satisfying 10-12 hours, despite the well-trodden ground that its story treads. The thrill of guiding these characters through it is probably Until Dawn’s greatest triumph, and its ability to make even the smallest decision feel like it carries some weight (which it frequently does) gives it plenty of replay value. On the downside, the inclusion of so many collectibles does dilute those tense periods of exploration and stretches the scares out somewhat, and whilst the ability to replay the story’s ten episodes in any order after your initial playthrough is welcome, having to sit through every cutscene and piece of dialogue again without the ability to skip them is a brutal, enjoyment-sapping decision. Still, once you work past the generic set up and get to grips with your role of story tinkerer, you’re offered one of the most rewarding and downright enjoyable experiences on PS4.

L.A. Noire

Aside from the odd handheld adventure, Rockstar’s been taking an extended break from its flagship Grand Theft Auto seriese to take its influential sandbox approach to gaming to new territories. Last year’s Western-based Red Dead Redemption and Sydney-based Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire (which Rockstar have published) are good examples of the company attempting to break out of their comfort zone, and whilst the latter may still hold some of the conventions that’ve made this gaming powerhouse so successful, it’s a step into a bold new world in many ways.

Players assume the role of Cole Phelps, a returning WW2 ‘hero’ working the beat on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles. He’s the sort of determined, uncompromising character that we’ve seen before; he doesn’t earn many friends but he earns the praise he gets. After impressing his superiors with his investigating and interrogation skills, he gets promoted to a detective, and subsequently plunges deeper into L.A.’s seemingly bottomless cesspit of corruption, murder and greed. It might not be the most original concept in the world, and you can spot Cole’s eventual fall from grace a mile off, but he’s an engaging enough leading man for his trials and tribulations to be an engrossing experience, even if he isn’t the most likeable guy.

(This is actually one of the more cheery crime scenes.)

Whilst there’s been enough coverage focusing on what L.A. Noire does differently, it’s worth noting that it isn’t a million miles away from anything in the GTA series. How can it be? It’s a Rockstar game. The difference here is that you’re on the right side of the law for once. You can’t go around running over pedestrians, smashing into cars and causing mayhem (well, you can, but it won’t do you any favours). There’s still a healthy emphasis on driving and gunplay, which forms the crux of a lot of Rockstar games, but the biggest difference here is that most of your time here will be taken up by investigating. This involves rocking up at a crime scene, searching for clues, questioning witnesses and putting clues together to get your guy (or gal). The real hook behind this game are the interrogations, however. Your clues will give you a basis upon which to grill your suspects, and every time you ask them a question, you’ll be forced to use a combination of intuition, body language and fact to discern whether they’re telling the truth, stretching it or if their arses are aflame. This is only enhanced with the fantastic facial animations on offer. Rockstar have been promoting their MotionScan technology for a while, and finally getting to see it in action is well worth it. This isn’t simple motion capture; each actor involved in the game had their lines recorded by over thirty cameras trained on their faces. It’s stunning to see detail on this level, and it opens the door to judge many more games on the performances of their actors, not their voices. These aspects are something that simply haven’t been seen in gaming before, and it’s an intriguing, rewarding side to L.A. Noire’s presentation that gets more absorbing as the game progresses.

The cases themselves get progressively more detailed and elaborate, but you’ll still find yourself doing the same things; driving from place to place, searching for clues, maybe having a scrap, interrogating and perhaps having a shootout before you’ll finish each mission. Sure, these aspects of gameplay can be somewhat monotonous, but during the Homicide missions, for instance, the thread tying each case together is so brutally engrossing that you’ll truly want to press forward. If you really don’t want to rush through everything, then you can busy yourself with forty street crime side missions, automobile collecting and discovering the landmarks of this massive, realistic slice of L.A.

That’s part of the games problem, however. The setting may be lovingly rendered and bursting with activity, but there’s not nearly enough to do to justify its size. It’s unnecessarily huge for a game that almost fools you into thinking that it has sandbox potential, but in reality, there’s no reason why this city had to be so large when, outside of the main story, what you’re offered has surprisingly little substance.

That places a touch too much emphasis on the game’s story. Not that it doesn’t progress with each rank you earn and every new set of cases that come your way; one of L.A. Noire’s plus points is pairing you up with a new partner each time you’re promoted and letting you see different areas of the city with each new investigation, which definitely helps to keep things fresh. Adding flashbacks to Phelps’ time in the war, his experiences with various soldiers and the way in which those men tie into the story was a good move, but some of the key relationships you’ll come across whilst in control of Phelps, particularly his partners, feel somewhat underdeveloped, detracting from the power of the plot’s biggest moments. Bit of a case of the sum of the whole being greater than the parts, unfortunately.

L.A. Noire is flawed, no doubt. Driving and shootouts have never felt so run of the mill, and they’re certainly scaled back here, but thankfully, there’s enough focus on the game’s plus points that it doesn’t totally hamper your enjoyment. L.A. Noire is something new, something a bit different and it gets that right. Mostly.

Retrospeak: Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII took a damn long time to come out. Hardly on the epic does-it-even-exist level of Duke Nukem Forever, but the game was first shown off at E3 back in 2006, for God’s sake. Over the course of the next four odd years, we were literally drip fed small tidbits of information with a pace akin to that of a stoned snail. Naturally, when the game did arrive, expectations were ridiculously high simply because of the length of the production cycle. Couple that with the fact that Final Fantasy is one of the few franchises out there that’s really worth getting massively, geekily excited about, then a small storm was already brewing. So when the game finally arrived in March of last year, it predictably shifted a lot of units, but opinion seemed exceptionally divided between Japanese and Western reviewers. Case in point, legendary Japanese magazine Famitsu gave the game 39/40, whilst IGN UK gave it an 8.3. With that in mind, let’s dig out the game and have another look to see if anyone actually got it right.

Firstly, everyone seems to agree that FFXIII is a technological triumph. Having played the PS3 version in full HD, it’s the best looking game the console has ever been graced with by some distance. The environments, character designs, even the bloody menus look amazing. Each setting is lavishly rendered, detailed and often stretches out for miles with barely any stuffy tunnels to speak of. Much of the credit for this has to go to the game’s primary setting, Cocoon. It’s a vast, lush, varied and fantastically realised world that is all the more impressive when you consider that you visit a frozen lake, industrial wasteland, lush forest and hi-tech city in the space of a single playthrough. But even these can’t compare to just how stunning this game’s FMVs (full motion videos) look. Seriously, there are times where your jaw will become one with the floor due to the sheer majesty of the visuals.  Square often out-do themselves graphically wth each new FF, and just like each new FF game on a new console, they’ve really pushed the PS3 to its limits. Helping this quite awesome presentation is Masashi Hamauzu’s stirring orchestral-based score, which is simply the best the series has ever been graced with. Even without series soundtrack guru Nobuo Uematsu, Hamauzu has created a grand, epic and sophisticated score that deserves some special attention even after you put down your controller.

Hold up there, young ‘un; a wise old sage once said that visuals aint nothing without a decent story (although I might’ve made that up). XIII just about delivers in that department, offering us a nice, varied cast of characters with some compelling backstories. Snow, a heroic, somewhat moronic hulking beast of a man probably stands out as the pick of the bunch, simply because he’s so clearly flawed that when his moments of clarity arrive, they feel genuine. This is in contrast to the quite one-dimensional Lightning (she of box-art fame) who spends almost the entire game being grumpy and doesn’t often venture beyond it. The story itself is one of the most elaborate in series’ history, centered around the party’s attempt to escape Cocoon’s domineering, dogmatic government after they are branded enemies of the world by a God-like figure from the wild, dangerous world below; Pulse. All in all, it’s perhaps not the most focused story we’ve seen from an FF game, and it loses its way more than once before thankfully picking itself up towards the end of the game, but the real emphasis is on the characters and their own problems here. XIII gives us some of the most emotionally-charged sequences the series has ever seen, with two particularly dark sequences that’ll stick long in the memory.

Of course, it’s not all good, and one thing that almost everyone outside of Japan can agree on is that XIII is a dumb-foundingly linear game. Square responded by saying that Western reviewers were expecting a more Western influence with side quests and NPC’s to chat to, but Square has to take that criticism on the chin, because there’s nothing to do in the first 10 chapters except push your way through each environment and progress through the story. Now, most FF’s have always had a ton of stuff to do outside of the main quest, so the criticism is certainly grounded, but everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten about Final Fantasy X. Cast your minds back and you might recall a game so linear that the only thing for you to do for the first 30 hours or so outside of the story was blitzball.  Yes, it did open up towards the end thanks to acquiring an airship (isn’t that always the way? What do FF characters have against public transport?), but it still took a damn long time to get there. With that in mind, it’s not like Square dropped a particularly large bomb in terms of giving us a massively linear game in XIII, and as FFX proved, an amazing story can make up for a dramatically linear approach during field gameplay. Your beef with XIII’s linearity will depend on just how invested you were in the Cocoon’s mythos and characters. In all honesty, it really shouldn’t have garnered the criticism it’s received, at least in this respect.

Like it or not (and some FF7 fanboys certainly do not), Final Fantasy is a series that never tries to do the same thing twice. Each of the numbered entries has featured a new setting, new story, new themes and new gameplay. Perhaps the biggest problem people have had with this latest entry in the series is its somewhat stripped-down approach. Normally, fans have been able to distract themselves from problems with plots or characters by getting their teeth into the gameplay or side questing themselves into oblivion, but that’s really not an option here. The battle system may develop from a simple set-up into a detailed and complex joy, but other than that, if you’re not fighting, you’re just going to be walking to your next scrap. Perhaps this puts a bit too much emphasis on the characters, which is fine for 4 of the members of your party, but for Fang and Lightning, who stay mired in monotonous stand-offishness and never really develop, it really doesn’t help.

Here’s to FFXIII, then; something of a flawed spectacle. If you can stop yourself getting lost in the visuals and get stuck into the story, you’ll be rewarded. It’s just a shame there isn’t more to distract you.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops

One of the strangest things about Black Ops is that even though it’s beaten Modern Warfare 2 and become the most successful entertainment product of all time, the buzz surrounding it has died down tremendously. A year ago, Activision were releasing regular statements to harp on about how MW2 had sold a gazillion units, but this time, they’ve remained quite tight lipped about the success of this year’s COD installment. After the very public war of words with the now-former heads of Infinity Ward (MW’s creators), Activision’s credibility has taken a bit of a bump, so perhaps it’s a wise move to let their COD-centric studio Treyarch get on with wowing the world for them. Their latest baby, Black Ops has already sold a buttload of copies, but is it worth all the fuss?

Off the bat, the campaign is one of the most personal you’ll find in the COD series. You take control of SOG operative Alex Mason in 1968 as he’s strapped to an interrogation chair reliving memories from the past decade in an attempt to stop a nuclear threat on the States. You’ll shift between different perspectives and shoot the hell out of various locations including Cuba and Vietnam, but perhaps the biggest difference is that your character actually talks and responds during battle as opposed to being mute. Little things like seeing Mason in cutscenes and hearing his voice during fighting makes you more connected to the story, and it makes you wonder why the hell this hasn’t been done in any of the other recent games in the series.

Without delving too deeply into the plot, it’s worth noting one rather large fault with the campaign; well, there’s an explosion, then another one, someone dies, a lot of bad stuff happens, then another explosion……are you seeing a pattern here? COD has prided itself on dramatic set pieces for years, and there are certainly some pretty spectacular moments on offer, but there’s barely any pacing to speak of. Sure, the campaign is involving and intense, but it seems to be afraid of losing your attention so it bombards you with action every two seconds. A bit of pacing never did anyone any harm, Treyarch. It’s also worth noting that Blops features some of the most violent scenes the series has ever seen, and when you take Modern Warfare 2 into account, that’s saying something. The violence is linked in well to the desperate tone of the plot, but it does go a little overboard at times.

There’s little point in mentioning changes with the gameplay, largely because there aren’t any. COD found an effective, exciting formula for first person shooters a long time ago, and to be honest, it isn’t really getting old. The biggest changes come from the multi player with the introduction of a points system that rewards your achievements in battle with currency to buy new guns/equipment etc. You can also complete contracts such as getting a certain amount of kills in a game to further your character, which is another nice touch. Largely, this is the same multiplayer experience that players have been blitzing since Modern Warfare, but again, it didn’t necessarily need a massive overhaul, so a few tweaks are welcome. Nazi Zombies also make a return, along with a quite fantastic arcade zombie shoot-em-up entitled Dead Ops, which is stupidly good fun. In short, there’s enough to get your teeth into here once the campaign is over.

All in all, Black Ops represents what the COD series has turned into; a familiar yet refined experience. Nothing about the way this game plays will surprise you, so it’s left to the campaign’s plot and its setting to keep you interested, which it just about manages despite that poor pacing. Multiplayer’s still great fun, but you’re left to wonder where the hell the series can go from here. It’s in something of a comfortable rut at the minute and you can’t help but think if this’ll be the same case with the next installment in the series.

7.5/10

Bioshock 2

In general, there are few games that will force you to take a lengthy pause upon completion and push you to simply take a break, making you reflect upon every choice, action and consequence you’ve taken throughout your playthrough and how it shaped your ending. Then again, most games aren’t set in Rapture, the distorted, decaying underwater dystopia which is once again infested with moral dilemmas. Returning to a game that never really needed a sequel and giving it another story was never going to be an easy task,  but even though Rapture feels overly-familiar, significant tweaks to the gameplay and a superb story make Bioshock 2 an outstanding sequel to the point of bettering its predecessor.

It’s ten years since the end of the original game and the fall of Andrew Ryan, and you take the role of a prototype Big Daddy named Delta, awakening from a decade of slumber. There’s a new leader in Rapture, and her name is Sofia Lamb. The polar opposite of Ryan, she values the collective over the individual, and has pulled the remnants and peoples of Rapture together to form The Family, to make Rapture in her own image. This wouldn’t be so bad if she wasn’t kidnapping young girls from the surface to act as Little Sisters, jumpstarting the twisted ecology once more. Not only that, but she is planning on subjecting her daughter and your original Little Sister, Eleanor to ADAM-infused experiments in an attempt to make her a glorious superhuman figurehead for The Family. As Delta, you must save Eleanor for yourself and stop her mother before she destroys her daughter, Rapture and you.

It’s instantly obvious that Bioshock 2’s narrative is a much more personal crusade than the first game, and it’s all the better for it. Eleanor is able to communicate with you every now and then to help flesh out the story further, and thanks to ADAM,  that all-purpose genetic material she’s able to communicate with Little Sisters and send you gifts from time to time. As you plow on through the story, meeting Sofia Lamb’s co-conspirators, all-new splicers and multiple Big Daddies, your resolve to save Eleanor and the bond you have only gets stronger. This relationship is really the core of the entire experience of Bioshock 2, and it’s masterfully done.

Sofia Lamb, whilst a chilling character never quite scales the grand malevolent heights of Andrew Ryan. The same could be said somewhat for the supporting cast, but they’re still an absorbing mix of personalities and motivations. Perhaps the most important new enemies are the Big Sisters, Lamb’s personal stormtroopers who used to be Little Sisters but have grown up big, strong and really, really angry. Tremendously agile and powerful, you won’t be beating these ladies easily. If you wanted another indication of just how imaginative this game is, Big Sisters can pull other enemies towards them with their high-powered gun and suck out their remaining health to heal themselves. Gruesome, but effective.

Before talking about the gameplay, it’s worth noting that once again, you have big, moral decisions to make in this game, and they will impact on your experience and ending in a massive way. The Little Sisters are back, sure, but are once again protected by Big Daddies. As Delta, an original Big Daddy, they’re not as hard to take down as you might expect, but you still have to decide what to do with the Little Sister once they’ve been defeated. Harvest or adopt? If you choose to adopt, you can set her down to harvest ADAM from dead splicers around Rapture, and once that’s done, you can rescue her from her plight, as you may or may not have done in the original game. These choices, along with some brutal mortaility decisions scattered throughout the game will shape everyone’s destiny, and it’s another testimony to developers 2K Marin that they were again able to force you to make tough decisions that’ll stick with you long after you’ve turned your console off.

Speaking of adopting the Little Sisters brings with it one of the biggest significant gameplay tweaks from the original. If you choose to adopt, you’ll pop the Little Sister onto your shoulder and go scouting for ADAM-filled corpses. Once you spot one, its your job to set up security, traps and defence measures to make sure that when you set your Little Sister down to harvest, she’s well protected, because of course, splicers will come en masse. Perhaps the best thing about this is the sheer amount of options you have at your disposal for protection, from the recognisable security bots and proximity mines to mini-turret guns and cyclone traps. Every time you set a Little Sister down to harvest, you’re in for an intense few minutes of fighting. And you know what? It’s hellishly good fun.

Aswell as this, Bioshock 2’s gameplay seems to be centered on streamlining the experience as opposed to revolutionising it. Hacking turrets, security doors and safes isn’t an annoyance anymore, and the old pump mini-game has been replaced by simply stopping a moving pointer, abacus style on a correctly-coloured tile. This helps to keep you in the action and it’s an extremely welcome addition, along with a whole host of new weapons to try out on Rapture’s locals. Bioshock 2 seems to be geared more towards larger firefights, so it helps to have weapons like the spear gun that’ll allow you to fire rockets at enemies that macabrely wont explode on impact, but will eventually cause mass devastation. The Big Daddy drill and rivet gun are also worthy additions to your arsenal, and by allowing you to dual-weild plasmids and weapons, you quickly get the intented feeling of being a Big Daddy, but probably more importantly, the combat is much more varied, fantastically entertaining and very enjoyable.

Multiplayer is another aspect of Bioshock 2 that doesn’t seem to have had a lot of press inches in recent reviews, but when playing it, it’s a bit obvious why. It’s still great fun and there’s no real change in gameplay from the single player experience, it’s just taking it’s time to sort itself out. Eventually, the community will increase, its developer Digital Extremes will address its slightly jagged feel and some downloadable content will surely be on its way to help expand upon the rather low number of levels, game modes and avatars. Right now, it’s looking good but it needs some time to find its feet.

Inevitably, its not all plain sailing in Bioshock 2 and the main problem you’ll experience is that we’ve seen Rapture before. Whilst you wont revisit any of the areas seen in the first game, it all looks and feels the same as it did two years ago. Not enough has been done to really change the setting and make it feel like a new visual experience. Rapture is still one of the most fantastically imaginative, interesting and well-realised settings in videogame history, but to a certain extent, your surroundings feel a little too familiar. This is a problem that the third game in the series could also face, and it sets up a massive problem for the developers; where do you take Bioshock next when going back to Rapture again becomes too easy a decision? It’s also worth mentioning that you may experience a few frame rate issues when the number of enemies on screen goes beyond 6 or 7. It’s understandable considering just how much is going on and wont hamper your enjoyment at all, but it’s definitely noticeable.

Having said that, it’s a testament to how well 2K have handled this sequel that everything bar Bioshock 2’s setting has been expanded and improved upon to a great extent. It’s a much more emotionally involving journey with genuinely moving conclusions, and depending on the choices you make, you could see one of 6 different endings. It’s a good bet that you’ll be affected by any outcome, and each one will make you think back to every hard choice you made along the way. Despite Rapture’s effect being slightly diminished, there are still few games out there that challenge you emotionally and mentally as the Bioshock series does and will surely continue to do.

It’s pretty rare that a sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time can actually provide a better overall experience, but that’s what we have with Bioshock 2. In almost every way, it improves on its predecessor and offers an intense, emotional and fulfilling experience.

9/10

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Games Wallpaper: Call of Duty - Modern Warfare 2

If Activision are reading this, here’s an idea for the tagline for Modern Warfare 3. Ready? Hem-hem;

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Officially the biggest thing ever in the history of man. EVER.

Modern Warfare 2 isn’t quite on this same level yet, but it’s pretty bloody close. What is it, $500 million dollars made in the first week of release? Christ knows how many hours of multiplayer have been racked up across all three platforms so far, but it’s been getting love from every review, youtube loser and noob under the sun.  Is it worthy? Yeah,  pretty much, but you didn’t come here to read everyone else’s thoughts, did you? Let’s rip this bad boy open.

Throughout the campaign, it’s clear that developers Infinity Ward never really felt they were going to get the chance to make MW2, such is the way it haphazardly continues the story from Modern Warfare. Characters that you saw on death’s door by the end of the first game make miraculous recoveries and form a huge part of MW2’s cast, which definitely points towards a bit of laziness in the character-creating department. Having Gaz (under the handle of ‘Ghost’ and wearing a mask) , Captain Price and Soap back isn’t a problem whatsoever, it just feels a tad lazy.

But it just adds to this idea that the campaign has been ramped up to a bombastic, self-important Hollywood production. It’s got this attitude where continuity and a traceable narrative just seem to vanish. It insrinsically bleeds into the gameplay too; I’m not joking, you will fake-die so many times during set-pieces it almost gets frustrating as opposed to the intended shock you’re meant to feel. Coupled with the fact that quite a few key plot points simply happen without any explanation or reasoning, you can’t help but feel like this is a step back from the first game, at least in terms of story. Of course, it’s still an enthralling, intruiging and intense experience, it’s just not as good as it could be. It clocks in at just around 5 hours too, which is frustratingly short.

Any discussion of MW2’s campaign wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that most controversial of levels, No Russian. In case you’ve missed it, this is the level that has you assuming the role of an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, assisting in the mass murder of civilians in a Russian airport. When playing through it for the first time, the level of violence will definitely stun you; it’s certainly more brutal and horrific than anything else the series has seen in the past, but within the context of the story, it works well and doesn’t seem to have been included purely for shock value. As far as the content itself, it’s fantastic to see a game tackle such a controversial subject such as terrorism in an adult fashion. Gaming is a very interactive entertainment medium, far more involving than film and television so why shouldn’t it visit the same controversial subjects seen on our small and big screens and produce mature, adult stories aswell? Considering MW2 is poised to become the biggest entertainment product of all time, its developers should surely be allowed to tackle difficult issues in whatever way they see fit.

Away from controversies, and back to the game at hand. The introduction of Special Opps is certainly welcome as a way of fleshing out some levels from the campaign and adding some extra challenges.  They’re a lot of fun, ranging from killstreak-centric survivalism, Snowmobile races and air support, suitably amping-up in difficultly the more you complete. Considering how much of MW2 is online, Special Opps certainly helps flesh out the offline experience and can be enjoyed with the handy addition of local co-op. Considering Infinity Ward consistently shoot down the idea of campaign co-op, Special Opps is definitely welcome.

Of course, the real selling point of MW2 is the multiplayer. Simply put, as soon as you finish your first match, you’ll be lost to your loved ones for a good while. Everything is improved upon; killstreaks, match-making, the addition of deathstreaks for the noobs amongst us, new game modes….it all feels new and exciting whilst maintaining that addictive accessibility that made the last game’s multiplayer such a fantastic time waster. It claimed a ton of social lives two years ago, and now, the most annoyingly engrossing competitive online game is even better. Be prepared to let it own you for a good few months.

 

Does MW2 live up to the hype, then? In a way, yes. It’ll please gamers and reviewers everywhere as its essentially more of the same fantastic product, but in a sense, you do worry that the series itself might be becoming a little too big for its boots. It’s such a massively successful franchise that you cant blame Activision for beaming with pride every time a new press release comes along updating us on the how well the game has sold and how much money it’s made. The problem is that there are signs creeping in of the success of the Modern Warfare franchise beginning to dilute the experience of its product a little, even if it is only the campaign. When MW3 inevitably arrives in 2011, with this success in mind, it does make you wonder how much of it will go to Infinity Ward’s head.

So, in short, fantastic game with massive story-telling faults. It’s not the best game of all time despite the sales, but if any game is going make this much cash and cause this much of a stir, it might as well be one as good as this.

9/10

Batman: Arkham Asylum

This game could’ve been terrible. Around the time The Dark Knight was making a killing over a year ago, there was a big likelihood that the next Batman game was going to be a hideous movie tie-in. So it was definitely a relief and certainly intruiging when Arkham Asylum was announced to be the next Batman game, and to have nothing to do with Christopher Nolan’s film. At first, expectations can’t have been too high considering how many forgettable comic book hero games there have been, let alone terrible Batman ones, but damn if this game didn’t start off looking great, and continue along that route until it reached Awesome Town. Having spent some quality time with Arkham Asylum over the last few weeks, I can happily report that it’s definitely the best Batman game there’s ever been, and easily one of the best of 2009, period.

The story plays out like your classic Batman v Joker tale; Joker was attempting a robbery, and got caught by Batman. The caped crusader is returning him to the maximum security of Arkham Asylum, but is suspicious as to why Joker would let himself get caught so easily. Sure enough, Joker breaks free just after his arrival and with the help of some friends, takes over the entire asylum. Trapped inside with a host of old foes, Joker’s henchman and the asylum’s inmates, Batman has to survive a hellish evening by himself with only an arsenal of gadgets, a superior intellect and expert combat training.

What? It’s freakin’ Batman! He’ll do ok.

Arkham Asylum plays out like a third-person action/adventure title with a fantastic hand-to-hand combat engine, stealth elements and some detective work thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a mashing of gameplay styles, and to an extent it is, but each element is combined so well you barely even notice. The fighting is ridiculously easy and very satisfying, so you’ll be racking massive combos up in no time even with ten enemies surrounding you. You’ll be fighting often, but during your quest to take back control of Arkham, you’ll also find yourself in large rooms with armed guards waiting to fill you with bullets blocking your way. You may be Batman, but you can’t just rush into a firefight. This is where the stealth element comes into play; you’ll use high vantage points, grates and walls to avoid being spotted and are then pretty much free to take out your enemies as you please. Batarangs, glide kicks, hanging them upside down from stone gargoyles or exploding walls, it’s an intensely gratifying system and one that rewards patience and ingenuity as opposed to speed and power. You’ll often hear the remaining guards getting more and more aggravated as their buddies are picked off, which is a great touch.

Outside of the main story, there’s an embarassing amount of side quests and things to do. 240 individual challenges hidden across each area of the island by The Riddler will provide you with hours of exploration, which will in turn be rewarded with biographies for almost every villain within the Batman universe, character trophies to view and interviews with Arkham’s more high profile villains. It’s clear that British based developers Rocksteady have taken full advantage of the DC Comics licence and created an extended love letter to Bat-fans, and it shows in every part of the game. The characters themselves are heavily comic book influenced, which was certainly the way to go considering the last two Batman films have gone for a hyper-reality that just wouldn’t transfer too well from cinema to console. Rocksteady have even gotten established voice actors of the series to take control of their characters, calling upon Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) to reprise the same roles they’ve been doing in animated series’ since the 90s. Hamill inparticular steals the show as the prince of crime; every time he’s on screen, Joker demands your attention and even when he’s speaking on the island’s PA, his quips are so delightfully demented that you don’t want to miss a single syllable.

It’s touches like employing Conroy and Hamill that make Arkham Asylum feel so authentic, so damn Batmanish. Rocksteady have really nailed what Batman is about and what controlling the dark knight should be like. There were no problems big enough during my 15 hour playthrough that proved a distraction from an absorbing, dark and intense game. Ok, the game’s ending didn’t quite feel like a decent pay-off after everything you’d just been through, and Rocksteady saw fit to leave us with a teaser that surely points to their involvement in a sequel of some sorts. But on this sort of form, you’d be insane to have anyone else taking over the Batman gaming licence, because just as Christopher Nolan rejuvinated a character who’d been stuck in the cinematic doldrums for years, Rocksteady have given us a definitive interpretation of what Batman should be in 2009.

Intense, dark and brilliant. Even if you aren’t a Batman fan, you’re looking at one of 2009’s highlights in Arkham Asylum.

9/10