Posts Tagged ‘XBox games’

Games of the decade – GTA: San Andreas

16 February, 2010

Oh, let’s be honest, one of these games was always going to get in here. To be honest, I’ve not played Vice City so it was always going to be between the “original” Grand Theft Auto 3 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I went for the latter, so you’re probably either cheering me or calling me a fool.

It’s really a bit pointless going over the details of this hugely-popular, highly-regarded and rather controversial series but I’ll give some brief information for anyone who’s been resident on the Moon for the past 15 years: basically, in the GTA games the player controls what used to be known as a “hoodlum” who is given free-reign of a large gaming environment in which you can do pretty-much what you like. There is a series of missions which need to be played to progress and, eventually, beat the game but when these are carried-out is up to the player. The first two GTA games (released 1997 and 1999, respectively) were top-down but since GTA 3 the series has been in 3D. GTA: San Andreas was based around the GTA 3 game-engine (as was the earlier GTA: Vice City) but adds a whole host of features to its predecessor.

Now, some people prefer GTA 3 for its more straightforward gameplay and lack of gimmicks, and some prefer Vice City because of its atmosphere; I’ve only played GTA 3 and San Andreas of these and SA wins hands-down for me.

The protagonist stands around in a busy street holding an assault rife. Perfectly legal in GTA-land, it seems.

The main reason is the sheer size of the game. GTA 3 took place in a single city, San Andreas takes place over a fictional US state consisting of three cities, various towns and a lot of countryside and desert. Whilst GTA 3 felt slightly confined, San Andreas feel liberating – when you get bored of a city you can just drive off into the countryside and start being a public nuisance in small town American, or even just run off into the wilderness; or climb a mountain, it’s really up to you. The GTA games have always been about freedom and SA gives the most freedom the series has seen yet. The fact that it was the first game in the series in which the player was able to swim, making previously off-limits areas into new places to explore expanded that even further; as did the fact you can now fly aeroplanes.

I took this shot to demonstrate the game and left it like that as I wrote this up; just glancing over I see a massive pile-up has since occurred. Oops.

GTA San Andreas is all about the environment, all about the “game” as a plaything where the player can explore and experiment with a virtual environment, creating their own challenges as they wish. The actual mission-based gameplay is, in the main, rather samey and the learning-curve is all over the place with rock-hard missions often being followed-up by ridiculously easy ones. But playing GTA is about controlling your own gangster in a cartoonish virtual reality and having fun in ways that you never could in the real world. GTA San Andreas feels like it really understands this – not only because it gives the player such a massive environment to mess around in (and, in contrast to the usual criticisms of this series, many of the most-entertaining features of the game are non-violent), but also because it fills the game with hidden places, special tasks, hidden games and easter eggs to discover. The sheer scope of what’s gone into the game is incredible – it’s possible to still be stumbling across brand-new features after playing for over a year.

If I were asked to name negatives, I’d say that the storyline is perhaps too involved compared to the leaner, more game-suited narrative of GTA 3, and that the protagonist is perhaps too humanised compared to the nameless, mute thug of the original game who never seemed so out-of-character when he was bouncing pedestrians off his bonnet. But those are minor criticisms. GTA San Andreas, whether you approve of the violence or not (and, it must be remembered, it’s all very cartoonish) is, and always shall be, a terrific game.

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Games of the Decade – Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast

26 January, 2010

I know it's not much of an all-action shot but this is the best I could manage whilst playing the game and holding a camera.

This next game o’ the’ decade is a racing game and it’s one of the most entertaining, accessible and, above-all, fast racing games I’ve played. Strictly-speaking, I’ve chosen Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast because, for me, it pips the original Outrun 2 but only just and most of the things I’m going to mention in this article apply to both.

You know the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well, the people behind Outrun 2 took that to heart and thank flippity-flop they did.

The original Outrun arcade game was a sensation when it first appeared in 1986. Basically, the player controlled a Ferrari Testarossa (unofficially, at least, Wikipedia claims that the game was never licensed and the likeness of the Italian supercar was used anyway) as it sped along five successive courses (which, with the exception of the first were chosen by the player as the road forks at the end of each course giving two separate options and meaning there are various routes through the game and several different endings) against a time limit; if a course is completed before time runs out then the timer is extended, if not then it’s Game Over. Whilst bombing along the roads trying to beat the clock the player also had to contend with other vehicles (all driving in the same direction as the player, interestingly enough) and try not to crash into them or, indeed, the roadside scenery as doing so would cause the car to either spin or, in the case of a serious crash, to flip into the air in a still-impressive bit of animation leaving the driver and his girlfriend sitting dazed on the road.

A screen from the original 'Ourun' arcade game, back when Fatcher was in power and young men driving unlicensed sports cars sped along roads at dangerous speeds.

That’s basically it – this was a pedal-to-the-metal driving game; there wasn’t very much call for careful racing lines and realistic car handling as seen in most modern driving game which take more after the Playstation smash-hit Gran Turismo. And yet, when Outrun 2 appeared in 2003 it might have had all the fancy trappings of 21st century gaming but it played more like the original than the realistic racing games that were most of its contemporaries for which we all ought to be thankful.

Something that strikes you about the original Outrun when you play it even today – it’s fast, really really motherfunking fast. This is one of the reasons that the various home computer versions, which appeared in 1987 following the success of the arcade game, were so disappointing – they couldn’t possibly recreate the arcade game’s sense of speed. One of Outrun 2‘s main joys is that it has the original arcade game’s exhillarating sensation of rushing headlong along a long, winding road through some stupendously beautiful, almost fantastical, scenery. It handles a little more realistically than the original and there are (optional) manual gears but in its heart this is the same game that appeared in the arcades in the mid-80s. Add to this brilliant extra features, challenges and unlockables on the home console versions (including new courses, from the Outrun SP arcade game, on the Coast to Coast release) and an all-new “powerdrift” dimension to driving which allows the player to drift at collossal speeds around sharp bends (highly unrealistic, if exhillarating, which is why you’ll never see it in Gran Turismo) and you have one of the most enjoyable driving games yet seen.

Outrun 2 can probably be picked-up for a few quid second-hand for XBox or PS2 these days and, if you can’t do that, then there’s always the new version on XBox Live Arcade. Whatever version you get, it’s worth owning if you pine for the days of old-fashioned arcade-style racing when the only gears were “high” and “low” and when the brake pedal sat largely-neglected underfoot.

Games of the decade – Morrowind

22 December, 2009

This is my character. He might look a bit tasty but he's called Snively Pickles. Really.

Morrowind. Oh, where to start with Morrowind?! Well, I can actually trace this back with my excellent super-memory. Around November 2005 I picked-up a second-hand X-Box from one of my local(ish) gaming emporiums. Then I took it back because something small and metal was rolling around inside, then I replaced it with a new one (with a noisier hard drive but I wasn’t willing to lug it all the way back across town again) and realised that GTA: San Andreas and Knights of the Old Republic II weren’t going to keep me going for the coming year or so. I needed more games!

Cut to a week or two later and I’m reading a forum on NOTBBC where someone is bigging-up a fantasy RPG I’d never heard of and waxing lyrical about travelling from town to town, atmosphere and a few other people chip-in saying how good the whole thing is. I think “hmm, I’ve not really got into a CRPG since my Eye of the Beholder days, I might give it a try”. So I picked-up a second-hand Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind, the said game, took it home and started playing a game which, four years later, I’m still playing, still loving and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of.

Fans of Morrowind will tell you that it’s a world in itself; when playing the game you get to know it, get to know its nooks and crannies, quiet settlements, frightening crypts and dank, monster-filled caves like you do your home town. And all this is true but it’s only the merest paragraph in the Big Book of Why Morrowind is Great.

The game is usually played in first-person mode. Here, my brother's character stops to chat with an orc at a daedric shrine. Awkward small-talk ahoy!

When I played Morrowind I realised I was playing the type of RPG that the genre had always promised right from the early days of The Dungeon Master and Swords and Sorcery on the Spectrum right through Eye of the Beholder and Fallout in the ’90s. Finally, here was a game where the player creates a character, has them dumped in a world and is pretty much free to do what they want. In Morrowind, the non-linear nature isn’t the result of side-quests which can be done at will to supplement the main quest, the main quest is literally an option. If the player wants they can ignore it and just concentrate on rising through the ranks of the Fighters’ Guild, or becoming an outlaw, or a vampire, or (in the expansions in the Game of the Year Edition) going-off to deal with the Dark Brotherhood in the capital of the Morrowind province, or help build an imperial colony on the frosty island of Solstheim. It’s literally up to you, Bethesda (the development team) have actually said there is no correct way to play the game and when you play Morrowind you realise they mean it.

Everything is presented first-person and, unlike games like Fable, there are no fixed “routes” to follow. Tired of wandering along the road from one town to another? Why not jump over the fence and wander off into the wilderness? You can do that, you can climb any mountain you come across (or at least try to), swim across (and under) and lake, river or sea you find; get the correct spells or potions and you can even fly high above the landscape. The landscape is so open that it’s actually possible to plan out a journey to the lair of the game’s paramount villain from the start and pick a fight with him (although a level one character doing so is sure to get his arse presented to him on a silver plate with a side-salad and a helping of chips).

My brother's character again, doing a spot of magical levitating over the daedric shrine. They want him to come down again "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" he says.

And not only is the landscape open, it’s also full of things to explore and do. The game largely takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the province of Morrowind and the island itself is split into regions each with their own flora and fauna and each run by a separate House of the Dunmer, the indiginous (and rather racist) population of the province. Exploring the landscape from region to region the architecture changes, different animals appear to menace (or just curiously observe) the player character, ruins and settlements are stumbled-upon and inhabited and forgotten caves and mines appear all over the place, often filled with as much hostile monsters and people as treasures.

Morrowind‘s “open” RPG experience was developed in its prequels, Arena and Daggerfall (now available as freeware) but Morrowind removes some remaining restrictions. No longer, for example, are certain character classes restricted in what armour and weapons they can use. The move from the mixed sprite-and-polygons “two and a half dimensions” to full polygon-based 3D also removes the graphical restrictions of the original – no longer do monsters and objects’ perspectives go all “funny” when looking at them from above or below.

I’ve not even started on the many reasons I love this game. I haven’t told you about the sheer atmosphere – the beautiful night sky, the changing weather conditions, the excellent sound (I still don’t like going into Dunmer crypts when playing the game late at night, those whispering voices!), the little touches like characters walking around with torches when you enter a town at night. I haven’t mentioned the extremely complex and self-configurable magic system which allows even non-magic-using character classes to commit themselves to learning a little magic if the player is willing to put the time in. I haven’t mentioned the way the Dunmer Houses gift you a home if you rise high enough in their ranks and how you can fill your new home with trophies collected on your travels turning them into a personal museum. I haven’t mentioned the game’s customisability on the Windows version of the game whereby players can change and mod certain aspects of the game to make it more realistic or more challenging. There is so much about this game that you need to find out for yourself and if you don’t have a copy (and the Game of the Year Edition probably costs peanuts these days) and you’re willing to invest time in this type of game then there’s no real reason not to.

Of course, Morrowind isn’t perfect; the combat system is a bit wonky and there are a few features I didn’t care for (like NPCs spending all night wandering around the place and never going to bed, although the game lampshades this in conversations with some characters) but overall this is simply the best RPG I’ve played in over twenty years of gaming and which I’ve been playing on-and-off for four years and could well be playing for another four. It’s for that reason that it’s the first of my ten games of the decade.