Saturday, 13 June 2009

My favourite levels of all time, Part 4

Okay, another in the blog series is to follow. First off, just want to mention two games: Plants vs Zombies, and Cryostasis. The first is a tower defence game, a genre I swore to hate until the end of time (and, even worse, it's a Popcap game!). Anyway, it's good fun, the gameplay is mildly addictive and the whole production just oozes charm and character. Well worth the £6 on Steam, there's plenty to unlock so it should keep you busy for a good long while! There's a demo available too, so you've really got no excuse to check it out.

Secondly, Cryostasis is good fun. It feels reminiscent of Bioshock, but it has a strong 'adventure' element thrown in (along with the first person mêlée combat of Condemned). There are some good shocks in it, and the atmosphere is fantastic, but it's lacking polish and a bit of visual pizzazz. I haven't got too far into it yet (I've not even picked up a gun yet!) but I'm enjoying what I've played of it so far.

Anyway, on with the show!

Museum of Technology - Fallout 3

This may be slightly shorter today, I probably don't have as much to say about this one as the others…

For those who don't know, Fallout 3 is the 2008 big-budget sequel to the original 1997/98 Fallout post-nuclear role-playing games (themselves spiritual successors to 1988's Wasteland). I'm a huge fan of the original games, mainly for the feeling as being part of a living, breathing world… Well, a gasping and wheezing world, at any rate.

All games involve your character journeying out from some secluded upbringing (either living their whole life in a nuclear bunker, known as a Vault, or from an isolated village in the mountains) to follow a quest across the wider desolate landscape. The beauty of this is that you uncover stuff as your character does; you never get into the situation you could in, say, Baldur's Gate, where you (the character) knows what a Kobold is, but you (the player) don't. Neither of you have any idea what a Deathclaw is until one pounces on you and tried to tear you a new one!
The game is set in a 'world of tomorrow' future; It's not the future as we imagine it now, but the future as it was imagined in 50s America. There are nuclear cars, vacuum tubes, Forbidden Planet-styl3 robots, and the Inkspots on the radio. One section of the game sees you journey to DC's Museum of Technology, a showcase for all this retro gadgetry.

The main reason section this is in is atmosphere. I have posted my thoughts about Fallout 3 previously on my blog, but I think one of the things Bethesda really nailed was the lonely and desolate atmosphere. The main exhibit at the museum is a demonstration mock-up of a vault, very similar to the one you grew up in out in the wasteland.

The place is deserted, and has obviously been hard hit by the ravages of time and looters over the years; metal is pitted and rusted, dust hangs heavy in the air, and the floor is littered with debris and rubble. However, the displays obviously once intended for the public are still operating… As you creep through the eerily derelict display, voices chirp from hidden speakers about all the mod-cons available to residents and slide shows flicker to life as you walk past encouraging you to sign up early.

You never know if someone (or something) has made this their home, so every creak of twisted metal makes you jump. The feeling of isolation, loneliness and age has never, in my opinion, been portrayed so well in a game.

He does rush through it slightly, though...

Anyway, this has all got very serious! To sum up, I loved this section of the game… In fact, I'm very tempted to now go and play some Fallout 3!

Man, I wasn't going to write for long today!

My favourite levels of all time, Part 3

Between a Stone and an Axe - Dawn of War: Winter Assault

A strange one this; probably not what most people would consider a particularly groundbreaking or innovative level. I'm not hugely familiar with single-player campaigns from other RTS games... To be honest, I always found them too difficult! The Dawn of War games have been the first in the genre I have really made an effort to push through the campaigns, and I have found them an awful lot of fun indeed.

This mission is from the first expansion pack to Dawn of War, the pack that introduced the Imperial Guard as a playable race. It was also the last pack to keep the structured single player campaign before moving to the (in my opinion, the much weaker) format of linked skirmishes with an overarcing planet/system map. I'm not a huge fan of resource gathering or base building in RTS games (the phrase 'Space Marines don't chop wood' has always stuck in my head), so the scripted battles of the campaign in the original game and expansion are far more fun to play; you can concentrate on the actual strategy of moving your troopers round.

The mission sees you playing as both the Eldar and the Imperial Guard; as it starts, you take control of the Eldar and have to escape from an endless horde of attacking Orks. Slowly, you teleport your way through the webway away from the marauding Orks, but they slowly begin to catch up with you. Eventually, control switches to Imperial Guard holed-up in a nearby base; striking a quick deal with the Eldar, they agree to defend them until they can teleport their buildings into the safety of the Imperial fortification.

Once they do this, the fun really starts... A tide of green begins to sweep towards your base, and you have a scant few minutes to arrange your defences as best you can. The idea is to hold out until reinforcements can arrive to relieve you; I think it takes around 15 minutes. The first few waves fall fairly easily, and the Ork corpses begin to pile up; as the game can be set to keep all bodies rather than have them decay, you end up with a huge pile of corpses at the entrance to your base. I used two Hellhounds (anti-infantry tanks which shoot twin jets of fire) around the base entrance to hold the enemy off...

After a few minutes, tanks start turning up, and still wave after wave of Ork attacks; you slowly have to fall back inside your own base, abandoning lines of defences as you go. Just when it seems like you're done for, when Ork Stormboyz are raining down from the sky and looted tanks are shelling you from afar, the reinforcements arrive. And what reinforcements. A Baneblade rumbles on to the screen, your first sight of one, and starts to lay waste to the besieging army.

I've picked this level as it really showed me that RTS games can be as exciting and tense as any first- or third-person action game. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, desperately ordering troops to hold their positions against seemingly insurmountable odds.

My favourite levels of all time, Part 2

UNATCO Prison break - Deus Ex

Okay, if for some reason you have never played Deus Ex, go and do it now. Seriously. I'll wait.
Finished? Good, wasn't it? Now we've got that out the way, I don't have to worry about spoiling the story for you.

Deus Ex is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made, providing a perfectly combined balance of cyber-punk story, player character development (though it's not really a true RPG), satisfying action and magnificent set-pieces. The true joy of the game was being able to tackle missions however you wanted; in many other action games, one 'tactic' is considered preferable. You may be persuaded to try stealth and have little ammo with which to tackle guards. You may be a regenerating superhero with stacks of ammo, and hence be persuaded to use force. Where these games often fall down is not really letting you try other tactics to overcome problems, or, if they do, have these alternate methods be nowhere near as efficient as doing things the way the developers intended.

Far Cry did get some of the way towards this ideal, and I'll be talking about that later in this series. However, for me, the true master of do-as-you-like gameplay was Deus Ex. For instance, the first level was a sandbox full of enemies, whom you could tackle them however you wanted. Silently stun them all with the cattleprod and hide the bodies? Execute everyone with sneaky headshots? Maybe run in brandishing your shotgun and kill before you get killed?

As you trained in each discipline, you became more skilled at it (andconsequently, relatively LESS skilled in other areas). Further customisation was available in the form of bio-mods, allowing game-changing special abilities. Obviously, you became less able to branch out by the end of the game (and it became relatively easy to charge in and hack everyone to death with the super nano-sword you pick up at one point), but the level I've picked is fairly early on.

The level uses that old, old cliche in video games; you get captured and all your weapons get taken away (this used to be a very widespread phenomenon, and it's still in use today... Bioshock? Check. Half-life? Check. Max Payne? Check.). You get thrown into a prison cell without any of your gear. Then, a friendly computer hacker pops your cell door half open; how you proceed now is COMPLETELY up to you. As you have no gear, even taking on the cell-block guard can be tricky. First time through, I spent around 30 minutes getting past him in his chair and the security camera monitoring the corridor!

The rest of your way out through the prison is littered with obstacles you can tackle in multiple ways; for instance, a pair of hulking robots patrol the corridor around the armoury. You can steal some high-explosives to put them out of action, sneak up behind them to shut them down, or, when you find the control console, hack into the security system and convert them to your side. Plenty of plot development happens over this level (such as finding out some truths about your brother AND yourself), but the crucial twist comes when you finally get out the front door... and discover you were in a secret prison on the level below your own office.

A place where you previously felt safe is now the scene of your own escape; you get to drop in on your own office to grab any supplies you've left there and chat to the few friends you have left in the organisation, before finally making good your breakout.

You can see a guy attempting this level without killing

To summarise, this level has real freedom to tackle it how you want. Never before in a game had I felt like I was actually there and the virtual world would respond to whatever action I took; it felt like the game was telling a story particular to me, tailor made for my own character and style of play. Pure genius.

My favourite levels of all time, Part 1

Okay, so I'm going to start a running series. Hopefully I'll finish this one, I've got the first few entries already written to give me a head start! I'm basically going to discuss my favourite video game levels of all time, explain why I like them and talk about why I think they're important to gaming. Enjoy!

Sanbone Trio - Gitaroo Man

Gitaroo Man is one of the best rhythm-action games you've never played... In fact, it may be one of the best games you've never played. It manages to combine playing music in a relatively realistic way on just an analogue controller, with a surprisingly enjoyable story. The story is told through the songs themselves with a few small cutscenes between each 'battle'; the tale of a young man coming of age, overcoming a bully and winning the girl is by no means new, but the innovative visuals (highly reminiscent of Mexican folk-art) and imaginative setting really sell it.

For those of you who have never played Gitaroo Man, your character is a weedy, whining kid... That is, until your dog Puma (who turns out to be a talking robot dog) throws you your Gitaroo (sort of like a more awesome Guitar). Holding your Gitaroo, you transform into the legendary Gitaroo Man, and lay down all kinds of guitar-based smack-down on the bad guys.

There are so many great moments in this game it's hard to pick one that stands out in particular; other great moment include a duel with an enormous Jazz-loving beeman (called, appropriately enough, King Mojo), a chase involving a Drum & Bass shark, an effeminate Goth who capers around while the main protagonist claims to be 'scared', and a wailing heavy guitar duet version of the Legendary Theme, played back-to-back with your girl in a packed stadium. However, there can only be one winner... The fight against the Sanbone trio is probably my favourite moment in the game.

Towards the end of the game, you are ambushed while asleep by a trio of Spanish (?) skeletons who enjoy playing their ribs like some sort of Xylophone. They tie up your dog and proceed to start beating on you... As your dog is captive, you have no way to get access to your Gitaroo, and all you can do is dodge their attacks. Eventually, they make a mistake, and your dog is set free, allowing you to start wailing on them with riffs of your own.

My favourite part happens around 1:05

What I love best about this level is just the feeling you get when you FINALLY get your weapon back; it makes the hair stand up down my neck when I've finally got the chance to start getting revenge on my tormentors (it's even better as Gitaroo Man is a fiendishly difficult game for newcomers; I died countless times before I ever to that point, and TRULY hated those bleedin' Skeletons!). Other games have done similar things, usually at some point after the Level Where All Your Weapons Get Taken Away (TM). Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is a close second here; after silently strangulating your way across your garden, you get to your shed where ALL the rest of your weapons are kept. Then, it's time to rain down some hell...

In summary, this level really shows you that a well thought out story and sympathetic characters can really involve you in a game, no matter what the genre. Here endeth the lesson!