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  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

A New Year’s Resolution of mine is to write more. To help this along, I’m going to write some stuff about any game that grabs me enough to finish in 2013 - the only rule is that I won’t bother if I’m reviewing it elsewhere, because that would be wholly pointless. I’m also delighted to say, my last post encouraged at least one person to buy The Walking Dead - take a bow, Debbie.

There’s plenty of things I can say for myself with certainty: I will never enjoy camping; I find songs by The Ting Tings massively irritating; I will (probably) never play for Derby County. One certainty that was challenged with Hotline Miami was this little gem though:

I will never enjoy battering a man’s skull in with a brick, while wearing a rubber animal mask.

To be fair, this wasn’t one of life’s great ethical questions, and it’s seldom asked in polite conversation. But blasting all the way through Hotline Miami, the top down retro indie game in a few hours (it’s quite short) was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, busted skulls and all.

If you were to glance at screenshots, which you can do if you like above, you’d probably come to the conclusion that it’s a Grand Theft Auto clone. But not a 3D Grand Theft Auto clone, an old school top-down car thieving, hari-krishna running down, cartoony take on organized crime. It’s not really… well not entirely. It’s actually like a cross between original GTA and another Rockstar game: Manhunt.

Because it requires quite a lot of planning and stealth, and it constantly reminds you that even the best laid plans of mice and men can be derailed… especially if said plans involve smacking a guard to the floor with a door, grabbing his AK47 and blasting the remaining guards to the floor in a blaze of blood and glory. One shot kills, and the guards aren’t shy about taking that one shot.

On top of that, firing a gun makes noise, and noise attracts others from the building. Unlike the hand-holding modern games of the minute, where ducking behind cover for a moment will miraculously cure that punctured lung, or broken legs, if you’re hit in Hotline Miami, then you go back to the start. Fortunately rounds are pretty quick if you do everything right, which makes it like the trial and error of Super Meat Boy.

As fun as the gameplay is though, the thing that will stick with me about Hotline Miami (and I can actually prove this: I finished it in January, but have been lax at updating my little corner of the internet) is the end of each mission. Once everyone is wiped out, the hypnotic rave music and sound of bullets and death is suddenly cut out, and you calmly navigate your murderous psychopath back through the building, through the collection of corpses you left en-route. It’s pretty rare for a game to make you revisit your actions, and although it’s not a ‘what does it all mean’ moment, it does at least give you a few tranquil minutes to reflect on the nature of over-the-top videogame violence.

So I think on balance, I probably wouldn’t enjoy caving in a man’s skull with a brick. With or without an animal mask.

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

A New Year’s Resolution of mine is to write more. To help this along, I’m going to write some stuff about any game that grabs me enough to finish in 2013 - the only rule is that I won’t bother if I’m reviewing it elsewhere, because that would be wholly pointless.

The Walking Dead is the closest I’ve come to finding a Choose Your Own Adventure Story in two decades of videogaming. Unlike those kids’ books though, The Walking Dead is brilliantly written and actually pretty emotionally draining over the 5 episodes… two charges very rarely made of games.

What it adds to the mix on top of this is a real time sense of urgency. With a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you could read the set up as many times as you liked, and then slowly turn to the page you want, read the first line, go back and decide again if you felt like bending the rules a bit. In The Walking Dead, the action unfolds in front of you, and you have very limited time to make a choice - and usually the choice is between two pretty unsavoury options. The consequences have a lasting impact on the way your band of zombie survivors treats you in future.

Case in point: we come across a group of strangers out in the woods - everyone distrusts people in this game, given the undead walk the earth, and bandits are killing and stealing the scant resources. Anyway, one stranger’s foot is caught in a bear trap. After deciding these folks are probably trustworthy, and vowing to help the guy out of his beartrap shaped dilemma, one of our party spots zombies on the horizon. The game switches to the first person and I struggle with the bear trap. All I have is an axe at this point, so I try forcing it open. It resists. I try cutting the chain the to the trap, so at least the guy can be carried away. Still no luck. The zombies are getting closer now and time is running out, when suddenly I spot a third way… but I really don’t like it, so I try forcing the trap again. As the zombies get closer I realised there really is no alternative - amidst screams of protests from the unwilling patient I take the axe to his leg for some good old fashioned ‘no anaesthetic’ surgery. It’s pretty gruesome, and it doesn’t come off in one cut. I manage 3 swings of the axe before the zombies get too close and we have to leave - his leg is still attached… just. If I’d had the stomach to axe his leg sooner, he’d have escaped, as it was he was left to the zombies, all the while in great pain and bleeding profusely from the leg. I’d failed, and I felt awful. Genuinely awful.

I must have killed tens of thousands of virtual people in sprite form over the years - this one I’d known no longer than my other virtual victims, but it created real guilt. And that’s why The Walking Dead is special. It doesn’t really matter that your choices don’t make much difference to the overall story arc (the game is remarkably resilient at ensuring your actions don’t count for a great deal in the greater scheme of things. If a character is going to die, you might make them last a bit longer, but they’ll eventually snuff it - take that chaos theory!), it’s about telling a story and making you care about the diverse range of characters.

The zombies themselves are window dressing, really - necessary scenery for the bunch of diverse survivors to get thrown together, and get increasingly fraught with each other as time goes on. You can’t please everyone, and you may find characters treat yours completely differently in your version of the story - in my case, the most cathartic moment of the game was telling a guy named Kenny, who I had spent the entire game mollycoddling through tantrum after tantrum, to “go fuck himself” when he expressed doubt at helping me in the final chapter. Suffice it to say, he didn’t react well to this, and I knew full well I was jeapordising my chance of a less unhappy ending in this distinctly miserable story: I didn’t care. Or rather, I cared too much to let the game end without giving Kenny an earful of abuse.

Considering how little I care for most game stories, that’s a major feat. And as for the story itself… well, it’s not that it's particularly novel, but it is wonderfully told, with plenty of surprises and cliffhangers, and it pulls at your heart strings in just the right way to make you care about the characters: in particular the little girl you’re charged with protecting for the game. I’m a sucker for a story with a lead achieving personal redemption, and my version of that character was just that: ostensibly a good person who had made some bad choices in life, but managed to redeem himself by the time the credits closed on the fifth and final episode - but not without a few regrets along the way, as the body count stacked up.

This is a game for non-gamers, because there’s actually not much game here, and the bits that are kind of get in the way of the story, and yet it’s still one of the best I’ve played in years. Buy it, and more of this kind of thing!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

A New Year’s Resolution of mine is to write more. To help this along, I’m going to write some stuff about any game that grabs me enough to finish in 2013 - the only rule is that I won’t bother if I’m reviewing it elsewhere, because that would be wholly pointless.

So, my first of these: Resident Evil 4. Actually, that’s a slight lie - I completed it in December 2012, but it gives me a running start in any case. There are some games that everyone raves about and looks pityingly at you if you admit to never having tried them. While I still have that dishonour for any Zelda game, I can now get rid of the Resident Evil 4 zombie-monkey from my back.

And I must say, as is often the way when you pick up a game which is actually almost pushing retro now, first impressions were painful. Resident Evil 4 is 7 years old, and at times it really shows. Leon - the rugged protagonist with the suspiciously unmoving side parting and the charm-ectomy - moves with all the stilted grace of a zebra trying to moonwalk, and aiming a gun in front of you sees the targeting reticule darting round the screen, meaning you constantly need to twitch the analogue stick to shoot on target. And there’s more: the awkward menus, the weird handling, the fact that unlike every other modern game that puts a gun in your hand, it inexplicably puts the trigger on the face buttons rather than, y'know, the handily placed trigger at the top of the pad - they all add up to an inaccessible experience in 2013. And forget about multi-tasking: Leon will resolutely only do one thing at a time - moving and shooting simultaneously are completely beyond him (which is fair enough, I suppose - put an M16 in my hand, and I doubt I’d be doing pirouettes while shooting cans off a wall 100 feet away).

Which may sound like a meandering way of saying ‘this game is of its time, and shouldn’t be played fresh in 2013’, but I persevered based on the glowing praise of friends, and discovered a lot to like. Surprisingly, it’s the awkward feel which often leads to truly great moments: if the aiming reticule worked like every other game, taking out a bunch of slow-moving, shambling zombies would be child’s play. As it is, the inability to move and shoot causes you to waste a whole bunch of bullets over the 14 or so hours the game takes to complete, and they’re often hard to come by, forcing you to get up close and personal with a knife (which, true to form, Leon also handles with all the precision of a surgeon having checked out on his last day taking voluntary redundancy because of a crippling squeamishness to blood). It’s a tense games at times, as you get increasingly frantic with your shots as a group of zombies moves in, and all the more satisfying when your shots come off - through luck or skill. Memorable moments, aplenty.

The plot is so ludicrous it’s barely worth even mentioning - not so much a B movie as a D or E film. Something about rescuing the president’s daughter who has been captured by things which… well, they’re not quite zombies, but they may as well be, except sometimes their heads pop open with weird tentacle things. It’s full of cameo appearances from equally ridiculous characters, who I assume I would know all about if I’d played the previous games. They all talk in the kind of Hollywood film chatter you’d expect from someone who had only read about films in a magazine a couple of years ago and was trying to imitate the style from memory. After a heavy bout of amnesia.

But I could list all the games I’ve played with good plot and writing without even reaching double figures, so that's forgivable. Overall, it should be obvious that I quite enjoyed it, and it’s the first game to grab me until I finished it in quite a while. But I will end on this note:

When you spend half the game battling to make Leon move with any urgency at all, how on Earth does he pull this off in a cut-scene late on?

Bastard kept those moves quiet.

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