Racing to Destiny’s defence

DestinylogoI would hate to be a professional game reviewer tasked with putting a score on a blockbuster like Destiny.  The sense of trepidation you’d have trying to think critically while still giving the developers benefit of the doubt on their intent is a near impossible task that I don’t envy.  That already difficult task is made even harder by the sheer aspiration and ambition of a game like Destiny, where Bungie has made no secret of their intent to redefine the shooter.  Not to mention the possibility of hordes of rabid Halo fans breathing down your neck if they think you got it wrong.

While its nearly impossible to know what was rolling around in the heads of the developer’s esteemed designers, it seems pretty clear that the world wasn’t necessarily expecting what it got from Destiny.  Within the first 24 hours i’d seen lines of people returning the game, and critics throwing words like ‘hollow’ and ‘empty’ around in their not-quite-reviews.  It was pretty clear there were some serious expectations from the general gaming populous going into Destiny – the most expensive game ever made – but that what was in the game was a little underwhelming.   Destiny had won over the wallets of players, but hadn’t quite captured the hearts and minds.

And when you read the reviews and comments permeating through every corner of the gamer-verse, a trend emerges, and one that doesn’t paint a very favourable picture of  the fruit of Bungie’s loins.  In short, people feel that Destiny just isn’t big enough.

Now I haven’t played Destiny, so for a comprehensive and insightful look at the game I’d suggest reading this, but I couldn’t help but notice many of the criticisms levelled at Bungie’s latest were also levelled at Xbox One launch title, Forza 5.  Being a launch title there was a lot riding on the fifth entry in Turn10’s top of the pile racer, and technically the game achieved everything fans could’ve asked for.  It was a beautiful game that, when the rubber hit the road, was easily the best of breed.  But the broader picture wasn’t so rosy, and Forza 5 suffered as much from its ambition as it did its omissions – at its heart though it was its light-on feature set and diminished track line-up that caused the most outrage.  Everything Forza 5 did right, and it did a lot right, was stigmatised by a perceived lack of content.  Less tracks, fewer cars, and an underwhelming career structure dragged down the review scores to make Forza 5 the worst reviewed game in the series.

But almost 12 months on, that disappointment has subsided far removed from the hype and expectation leading up to the game, and I am still playing the hell out of a game that polarised its players.   Distant memories of turning my nose up at (a paltry) 14 tracks have been replaced of the exhilaration of thousands of laps over dozens of hours in some of the fastest cars in the world all from the comfort of my couch.  And a year on Forza 5 has become a staple of my gaming diet as the pure bliss of Forza’s underlying driving mechanics keep their numerous tendrils wrapped around me and the sweet hum of a supercharged V8 Supercar charging around Mt. Panorama lulled me into a deep sense of security.

You see at some point my appreciation for what the game offered turned a corner and the quantity on offer became less of a point of criticism, and the logical side of my brain realised that the sheer act of playing Forza 5 was enough to keep me going.  The subtlety in the physics, the tangible excitement of hopping into another car and feeling the difference heading into the first turn of Laguna Seca – all of these things were the game’s content, and there is a hell of a lot of ways to experience the beauty of racing Turn 10 has carefully and lovingly crafted.  The content was there all along, it was just the very narrow view that consumers tend to take in quantifying it that was the problem.

And I wonder whether we’re seeing something similar with Destiny, a game that from all reports, seems to be a mechanically sound game let down only be its emptiness.  Whether the solid shooter pedigree is enough to hold people’s attention long enough to keep people playing – like Forza 5 did with me – remains to be seen.  But a game like Destiny, even in the face of criticism, won’t go down without a fight, and as the game gets its claws into select people, as it inevitably will, Destiny may well become the game people imagined it would be.  The question is whether the core of the game is enough to ensure people stick around to discover that the content may have been there all along.

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How Psygnosis’ original Wipeout helped legitimise video games

Wipeout_PS1Wipeout did a lot of things to progress the world of video games.  Aside from being a bloody fantastic futuristic racer, it was a beautiful showcase for just what videogaming in three dimensions was all about – looking not only streets ahead of its contemporaries, but in some ways like it had come from the far flung future.  At a significant time of change for the industry, and the disruption caused by the onset of CD-ROM and the potential it unlocked, Wipeout was in some ways a showpiece for the future of video games.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Wipeout truly ushered in the next generation of hardware.

But for me Wipeout was a far more significant video game milestone, as well as being one of the best racing games of the generation, it was the first game that broke from the traditional definition of video games into something much more.  With Wipeout, Psygnosis had successfully legitimised videogames as an artistic medium.

While we all look fondly back at what video games were, often contrasting them with what they’ve become, I always felt that every part of those early games was developed with a very functional purpose in mind, that everything from the graphics to the music existed only within the game world and its influence was confined to those four walls.  While it may have all had artistic merit in the real world, it was never intended to transcend the television screen and influence social or cultural trends.  Indeed games were growing up alongside the enabling technology, but their influence on anything but schoolyards and retailers was limited.  They had developed as an advancement of children’s entertainment – toys – and society (including those who played them) treated them as such.

That was until Wipeout came along.

There was something very different about Wipeout.  Developer Psygnosis, which later became SCE Studio Liverpool, was always known for breaking new ground with the games it released, but never before had it forever redefined gamers’ expectations from the video games they played.  And while Wipeout and its sequels were brilliant futuristic racers in their own rights (modern classics, really), it wasn’t in the gameplay that the developer took its greatest strides forward.  In fact in many ways it was everything around it that, for me at least, made games so much more than just very pretty and very expensive toys.

WipeoutPS1screen

Wipeout was quite simply the coolest game that I had ever seen.  Everything about it oozed a sense of style that most games that had come before it could only dream of.  Wipeout took the first steps toward games as art, with everything that padded the simple act of interacting with the screen, feeling like it had come from the advertising campaign for only the hippest of brands.  The soundtrack alone was filled to the brim with notable electronic artists –  from the Prodigy to the Chemical Brothers – and was enough to rival most film OSTs, but it was the game’s heavy focus on graphic design both inside and out of the game that made Wipeout such a unique and game-changing proposition.  From the design of trackside banners in the game, to the packaging and marketing material, the designers of the game had a very consistent message to send.  And Psygnosis hadn’t just thrown together polished concept art to plonk of the cover, they had notable hired guns the Designers Republic developing the look and feel of the Wipeout brand.  It was a campaign with a message,  and that message was that the release of Wipeout was the beginning of the future.  Wipeout may not have been the first game to employ graphic design in conjunction with its art, but it was certainly the first game to put it at the front and centre of its brand identity.

While Wipeout only got better with every entry, it is the original game that stands out as being the one that had the greatest lasting impact on the way developers, but more importantly consumers, think about video games. Whether games are art or not is a pervasive one amongst those that play them, with the case only being strengthened at the end of the Playstation 2 era with games like Shadow of the Colossus capturing the hearts and minds of almost everyone that played it.  But for me the moment I first saw and played Wipeout was the moment I realised that games are more than just toys, that they are mediums that can stand proudly alongside film and literature as beautifully curated displays of art.  Wipeout was more than just a technical step forward, it was a serious step forward toward legitimising video games as a pastime, and one that as a brand left its mark on generation after generation of players.

 

Feisar

 

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How Yoshimitsu helped fighters keep their crazy at the dawn of a new age

Fighting games have come to represent some of the craziest examples of gaming canon around.  In the 90’s the stalwarts of the arcade scene were injecting those crisp arcade screens with some of the most bizarre yet beautiful sprites to grace the relatively young industry.  For every Dhalsim there was a Kintaro.  It was a weird time for the industry, but one that so many of us remember so fondly.But progress – for a period at least – left those days in the trail of polygons.

Tekken and Virtua Fighter ushered in an era of ultra pretty and (at the time) complicated fighting that pulled people away from those long Mortal Kombat 3 lines and wowed them with the eye-catching visuals pushed by Namco’s Arcade System 11 and SEGA’s Model 1 boards respectively.  And it wasn’t long until these were the main attraction at arcades, as the traditional fighter was pushed to the back of the floor, making way for the newest and hippest 3D fighters.  If these games didn’t kill the 2D fighter, they certainly left them wounded and bleeding, ready for the Dreamcast’s Soulcalibur to lay the final crushing blow when it was released to a blazing hot reception when it released in 1998.

While I kept with the old guard, it was hard to not look at what these games were doing, both graphically and in terms of offering an entirely new fighting experience.  The characters moved with such fluidity – unlike anything else I’d ever seen – and the graphics for the time were what we all imagined we’d be playing in the future.  It was the future and console manufacturers knew it, with 3D fighters featuring prominently in the launches of both the SEGA Saturn and the Sony Playstation, with Virtua Fighter and Battle Arena Toshinden respectively vying to capture the imagination of would be 32-bit console owners.  But the real competitor to Virtua Fighter, as it had proven in the arcades, didn’t come to Sony’s console until later in 1995, with the arrival of Namco’s Tekken.  And it was definitely worth the wait.

TekkenPS1

Welcome to the future….

The first time I played the first Tekken way back on the Playstation I was taken aback a little bit by the roster of characters.  I shouldn’t have, because in a lot of ways it resembled the cast of characters pulled together by SEGA for its Virtua Fighter series.  But after years of larger than life sprites seen in Capcom, Midway and SNK’s offerings, Tekken’s band of ragtag brawlers came off as a little tame.

Well nearly tame.  You see amongst all the gravity-defying hair and headbands, I found my eyes drawn to a strange character – an out of place portrait – second from the far left of the – now admittedly small – roster.  “What is he” I wondered.  “A monster?”.  His eyes glowed red and his almost slasher flick-esque would have caused nightmares in some – admittedly only to those with a weak disposition.

That character was Yoshimitsu, a character so symbolic of Namco’s then newly-established fighting pedigree that he found himself jumping directly from the Tekken series, to the company’s wildly popular weapons-based Soulcalibur series, albeit in name only.    Before the increase in popularity of Jin Kazama, who first featured in Tekken 3, Yoshimitsu for a lot of people embodied not just the spirit of Tekken, but for some the spirit of 3D fighting games.  He may have been the monster among men, but his otherworldly presence and Namco’s seeming self awareness of the ludicrous nature of his character – including being the only character brandishing a weapon – made him something we could all relate to in order to bridge the gap from what we were used to from what 2D fighting games had become.  Yoshimitsu may not be the weirdest character in the Tekken roster these days, but by 1995 standards, he was positively freakish.

And as time went on Tekken – much like every other fighting game series – embraced its inner weirdness in line with what every other fighting game franchise was doing at the time.  1997’s Bloody Roar, for example, had men turning into animals.  But with every step its competitors made toward regaining the sense of craziness lost in the transition to 3D, Tekken’s designers were taking two.  By Tekken 3 we had drunken Doctors and Panda Bears, and by Tekken 5 we had Devil incarnates and Angels.  Seeing a man fly out of an erupting volcano is no uncommon sight in a series that, at one point at least, could have been considered at least a little bit grounded in reality.  Tekken had found its groove and wasn’t going to let up until it had wrung every ounce of insanity out of the creative team at Namco’s development team.

But before all of that craziness, for a brief moment, we had Yoshimitsu.  A single grain of craziness among a game that took itself rather seriously.  He defied the rules by bringing a sword to a boxing match, moved more like a monster than like a man, and likely gave his opponents nightmares well after knockout. He was Yoshimitsu – the man that arguably single-handedly kept the fighting game genre crazy.

 

Yoshimitsu

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Killzone: Shadow Fall portrays a world full of suffering and moral ambiguity, not that unlike our own

Killzoneshadowfall[Contains spoilers of Killzone 3]

I approach every game in the Killzone series with almost unmatched optimism.  The first game – while not perhaps the Halo-killer in terms of popularity and sales- remained the greatest shooter on that system; something that games on subsequent systems have managed to live up to for their respective consoles.  With such a great track record, expectations have always been high for the series, but Guerrilla Games (and more recently Guerrilla Cambridge) has managed to hit the high bar set by marketing and media alike to deliver fun and beautiful shooters that push the technology seemingly beyond breaking point.  Needless to say I have had more than my fair share of fun shooting at those clearly fascist-inspired red-eyed goons.

But underneath the inspired locales and solid shooting is a more sordid tale.  Through subtle undertones, decaying environment, and direct narrative devices, Killzone paints the picture of mixed and confused morals and almost religious dedication to one’s ideals.  Just as Wolfenstein: The New Order dealt with fascism and genocide did earlier this year, the Killzone series always carefully but directly covers narrative and thematic ground most shooters don’t allude to let alone explore.  The battle between the Helghast and the Vektans is a war long fought based on ideology and history – in some ways not unlike many conflicts currently killing innocents across the globe.  In short Killzone makes me incredibly uneasy.

Playstation 4 launch title, Killzone: Shadow Fall, is probably the most successful in injecting moral ambiguity into the heart of its narrative.  While the previous three main games in the series have toyed with themes of humanity and morality in fits and starts in its narrative, Shadows Fall is simple drenched in dread and scenes of injustices.  The  end of Killzone 3 saw the destruction of the Helghast home planet of Helghan, and what amounts to the wholesale genocide of its people.  Who is left – the refugees – have been granted asylum on the planet of their enemy, placed in encampments past a heavily guarded wall that separates them from the rest of the city’s population.  Right from the get-go, Shadow Fall paints a bleak picture of a world gone crazy, and one where human suffering is not only allowed, but perhaps condoned.   The segregation conveniently blinkers the general population, while the military maintains the tension between the two races in order to perpetuate the ‘us vs. them’ mentality of the populous.  And the random acts of aggression by Helghan soldiers, fallen prey to the propaganda of ‘terrorist groups’, gives the military just enough ammunition to maintain the fear of the populous and forward their agenda.

KillzoneShadowsFallPS4(1)

And from that point on, in filling the shoes of a Vektan military Shadow Marshal, you’ll never be fully comfortable with your actions, as it becomes a case of how many innocent lives are considered justifiable collateral.

Its the construction of such a vivid and believable world that Guerrilla uses as leverage to construct a world full of ambiguity in morality.  In many ways the amazing contrast between the opulence of the Vektans and the poverty of the refugee Helghans is brought to life by carefully constructed passages and level progression – helped in large part by the incredible technical and graphical accomplishment afforded to the developer by the Playstation 4 hardware – which take you on a journey to give you a rounded view of the true cost of the conflict.  The sequences in the refugee camps where you are witness to – and in some cases can intervene – Helghans ready to end their own lives are memorable punctuations that give that player an insight into the human toll of the subjectively frivolous conflict.  It’s one thing to use graphical power to construct realistic environments, its quite another to use it to create a believable world that conveys a real sense of curiosity and empathy.

Killzone has always been an amazingly constructed world with incredibly deep lore that uses a shooter to tell its story.  Shadow Fall is no different, and in many ways, takes what seems to be Guerrilla Games’ development modus operandi to the next level.  The strong focus on morals, and reflection of current global conflicts in its themes whether intentional or not, is a stroke of genius that makes it stand head and shoulders above other games that feature shooting as a central mechanic.  The sense of unease created both directly and indirectly is a brilliant device that Guerrilla Games uses to full effect, which rather than overlaying a binary moral mechanic over the game itself, achieves the same by attempting to alter the player’s mental and ideological state as they approach the narrative set before them.  Killzone may not be a revolution in gameplay, but its a revolution in creating a morally ambiguous path for the player.  More importantly it provides a fictional mirror through which to view (and understand) some of the most violent conflicts which are killing innocent people across the world every day.

KillzonePS4(2)

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From The Armchair: Time for a Clear Out

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

Egad, it’s been a fair old while since I last penned a post, nearly three weeks by my reckoning. Still, I have plenty of excuses to hand, one of which is that I spent most of last week cycling around the D-Day beaches of Normandy, which left little time for writing about video games. Although when standing on Omaha beach, the opening of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault crossed my mind more than once.

After reading about all the horrors and dreadful death tolls of D-Day, it still strikes me as odd to play a video game about it for fun, especially when World War 2 remains within living memory. And yet experiencing that landing scene in Allied Assault all those years ago probably gave me a better idea of what it would be like to take part in D-Day than all of the museums I visited last week. WW2 games may be long out of fashion, but I’m still undecided as to whether they are callous gamifications of a bloody struggle or essential ways to keep the memory of the price paid by so many alive for another generation – I suppose it very much depends on the sensitivity of the game.

Another excuse for my lack of posting is of course that it’s summer and the weather’s great, so I’ve been frolicking in the great outdoors. But perhaps a more exciting excuse is that I’ve been writing a couple of pieces for Kotaku.co.uk, both of which should hopefully see the light of day in the next few weeks.

But chief of my excuses is the fact that I’m moving out of London very soon, so the last couple of weeks has seen some frantic packing and clearing out. I’m off to Edinburgh, via a short sojourn in sunny Cannes, so there has been much frantic and increasingly desperate preparation as the moving date looms. Of course, this also provided the perfect excuse to take a long, cold look at my gaming backlog and make a judgement call on which games would be coming with me and which, ultimately, I can’t really see myself ever playing. Here are a few that missed their place in the moving van.

Dead_Space_ExtractionDead Space: Extraction – Don’t get me wrong, this game’s fate in the clear-out pile is no indication of its inferior quality. In fact, it came close to being one of our top ten favourite Wii games of all time. But I lost my save game when quite near the end after I said goodbye to my old Wii, and I just haven’t got round to playing through it again – and as the years roll on, it’s looking unlikely I ever will. Still, a great game, especially in two player.

fable-2-box-art-frontFable II - This was infuriating. I got Fable II for Christmas when it came out, and for some reason it kept on crashing my Xbox 360. After about 12 crashes I gave up, and not long afterwards my 360 developed the red ring of death. Coincidence? Well apparently the game was known to push the poorly cooled graphics chip pretty hard, so I’ll warrant there is probably a link there. I’ve never quite plucked up the courage to try the game again on my replacement 360, and to be honest there are several long RPGs that I’d rather play before this one, so time to give it the old heave ho.

Mercury_Meltdown_RevolutionMercury Meltdown Revolution - I bought this years ago, and I loved it. It’s a sequel to the PSP game Mercury by British video game legend Archer MacLean, creator of Dropzone, IK+ and Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker. It’s one of the few Wii games I can think of that really embraces the motion controls – you have to carefully tilt the remote to guide your blob of mercury around. I got about halfway through I think, but I haven’t played it in years, so it’s probably about time to part with it.

sin-punishment-star-successor-box-artSin and Punishment 2: Successor to the Skies – I bought this after hearing all sorts of good things about the fabled Japan-only N64 game Sin and Punishment, and as far as shooters go it’s a very good one. But it’s also very hard, and I never managed to get further than about three levels in. Loved the bizarre characters though, and all the weird giant turtles and crabs.

Wario_Land_The_Shake_Dimension_BoxartWario Land: The Shake Dimension – This is another Wii game that worked well with motion controls. Well, it involved a lot of shaking, anyway. It’s a pretty decent platform game, and I like Wario as a character, but to be honest I’ve been falling out of love with platformers these past few years – and if I can’t bring myself to finish New Super Mario Bros. U, then it’s unlikely I’ll get round to this game.

Toodle-pip for now!

 

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I am a nobody

CoD GhostI am the no one that buys Call of Duty for the single player campaign.  Call me part of the problem but I buy every Call of Duty game – and more recently Battlefield game – without exception.  While people lament the lack of changes to the perk system and the recycling of old maps I, like millions of other imbeciles, rush out to retailers and plonk their cool hard cash down on the counter.  “The newest game where I shoot many people please”.

But unlike everyone else that buys these games I don’t touch the multiplayer.  At all.  I appreciate and admire the intricate design and balance of these brilliant multiplayer shoot-fests, I find absolutely no fun in being either shot to death by swearing pre pubescents, or when I am winning, being told that I’m cheating because I’m using a weapon that is deemed to be ‘unbalanced’.  I am more than happy to accept that these parts of the games appeal to people that aren’t me.

The single-player campaigns though, those are things of beauty.  I’ll admit that they’re iterative, if not by numbers.  But they are spectacles like almost nothing else in video games.  Sure, they don’t have the scope or ambition of their open-world competition, but from my perspective they don’t need to when they execute on what they do so brilliantly.  While there are a number of reasons why I play games, my relationship with both Call of Duty and Battlefield campaigns are the closest I get to playing games simply for their escapism.  They may offer nothing in the way of cerebral challenge, or even sometimes narrative cohesion, but what they lack in those areas they more than make up for in pure thrills and immersion.  Battlefield 3 may not have been the greatest war story ever told, but the ride to its climax was a one that isn’t easily forgotten.  Needless to say, taking down a Russian jet fighter as it strafes your unit’s position ranks pretty highly in the memorable set pieces stakes.

With production values so high, and ambition in the immersion stakes so blue-sky, I personally find it hard to level criticism at the teams responsible for the roller coaster ride that is the modern shooter campaign. I find it perverse, not necessarily that Call of Duty and Battlefield campaigns are criticised per se, but more on the grounds on which they are.  Words like “linear”, “rote” and “predictable” are commonly used to describe the design of the admittedly short campaigns that developers allegedly shoehorn into games that – if you ask the internet – are primarily aimed at the online crowd.  But strangely, despite clearly not being the main sell-point for these games, it is the single-player motifs that define the publishers’ marketing regimes and the theme and feel of the game more broadly.  It is this strange paradox that the developers of these games find themselves in with games that focus so heavily on multiplayer being defined by aspects of their game that many people will ignore and never play.  In some ways while not as relevant as it once was, the campaigns in these games – Call of Duty particularly – is largely a legacy of the time where Call of Duty campaigns were king.  It is a legacy that the developers either can’t, or perhaps can’t afford to, shake.

And in terms of narrative and choreography, both of these behemoth series’ have revolutionised how games have made the transition to a more cinematic age.  While Battlefield’s sojourn into single-player action is a relatively new thing, it is easy to forget that Call of Duty made its name fighting artificial intelligence on the battlefields of World War II.  Ignoring Call of Duty: Finest Hour for a moment, it is Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 where the series really hit its stride, wowing gamers the world over with its great graphics and amazing set pieces.  And where that game started, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare really finished the fight, really cementing the series’ place in the history books with its gripping tale of global terror and its depiction of the human side of modern conflict.  It wasn’t pulitzer prize winning stuff, but it was a revolution in the way it put players into the shoes of a hollywood-style modern super soldier.

BadCompany

 

Smelling the potential to capture console players, Battlefield followed suit by inserting some semblance of a single-player mode in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat on the PS2 and Xbox – but it was with Bad Company that DICE really showed its campaign chops.  Bad Company had a great sense of humour and really captured the essence of what it is to be a Battlefield game – destructible environments, vehicular mayhem, and solid gunplay – in the form of a well-paced single-player campaign.  While Battlefield: Bad Company 2 moved away from the successes of that first game to fit more of a Call of Duty mould, it was still filled to the brim with fantastic action set-pieces that punctuated its relatively short campaign with enough explosions to shift the Earth off of its axis.  That of course was the first step in the convergence between Battlefield and Call of Duty campaigns, which despite being such different multiplayer offerings, are now fighting for the hearts and minds of single-players in a set piece arms race.  If there is an argument to be made against these games its that the convergence of the two leaves players with little in the way of unique experiences.

But this isn’t uncommon in creative and dynamic fields like video games.  I feel like I’ve been a bit harsh on platformers lately, but many of the same sentiments can be levelled at these critical darlings.  While I stop short of calling them criticisms, the same complaints about Call of Duty and Battlefield singleplayer campaigns can be also squarely aimed at the average modern platformer.  And so it becomes simply a question of when it is okay to iterate and when it is not.  I can’t argue that the single-player campaigns of Battlefield and Call of Duty haven’t gone through any sort of revolution – but I do find myself asking “why do they need to?“.

Perhaps Activision and Electronic Arts need to think outside the box on what these single-player campaigns should be.  Or maybe they don’t.  What it comes down to is that both DICE and the various Activision developers responsible for the Call of Duty franchise know their audience and their place in the market.  They focus on the evolution of an entertainment rather than breaking apart the very campaigns that made their games such successes all those years ago.  Call of Duty and Battlefield games don’t purport to be art – nor should they – they are aimed squarely at the audience that enjoys ridiculous and often impossible action sequences and ‘us against them’ political espionage.  They aren’t life changing experiences by any stretch of the imagination, and nor do they purport to be with all the bombast that comes with their marketing and promotional material.  But they are valid experiences that, while not perfect, don’t deserve the criticism fired at them by critics and fans alike.  Besides, if no one plays these campaigns anyway, what does it matter?

BF4

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The Sims and its sadly short-lived sojourn into co-operative split-screen multiplayer

SimsBustinOutI find it funny the lengths video game enthusiasts go to put people in arbitrary pigeonholes based on the games they play.  Not only is defining one’s worth on what games they play ridiculous, but from where I sit no one type of video game is more or less legitimate than any other.  As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so the enjoyment of a videogame experiences is a function of so many exogenous variables that one man’s trash can literally be another man’s treasure.  That’s what makes games so exciting.

If you’ve played video games long enough you’ll also know how its trends ebb and flow in a way that almost dwarves the fickleness of the fashion world.  You’ll hear the phrase “hasn’t held up well” bandied about all the time about the games of yesteryear, partly reflecting the fast pace at which the industry and technology moves, but also demonstrating just how dynamic gamers’ tastes (and tolerance levels) are.  To those that lived through them though, the memories forged by hours spent with these now ‘archaic’ trends are priceless, and you’ll seldom mention the good old days of videogaming without eliciting some sort of sentimental story from a nostalgia-filled gamer.

Split screen multiplayer is one such artform – one that has largely died out but defined for so many their gaming memories of yesteryear. I have no doubt that anyone that was around long before Call of Duty was the behemoth that it now is has some fond memory of split screen multiplayer.  Many will cite the formative console FPS experience ,Goldeneye 007, as the zenith of that style of gaming, while others will recall the rambunctiousness of the sillier-than-balls Timesplitters series on the PS2 and Xbox.  Whatever their poison though, gamers of yore swear by those formative experiences sitting on a couch with a bunch of girls and guys, shooting the shit while they (in all likelihood) shoot the shit out of each other.  Friendships were built and rivalries formed on couches right the way around the western world as our television screens were segmented for our multiplayer pleasure.  It was the golden age of local multiplayer that so many of us lose ourselves in during daydreams of a simpler and better time. But for some split-screen gaming came to define a great age of couch cooperative multiplayer of more – dare I say it – casual experiences.

While I indulged in those same great competitive experiences everyone else did in former generations, it was actually a more friendly game series – one that has sold millions upon millions of copies worldwide -that defined my partiality toward console local multiplayer.  That game was The Sims.  But while most people were sitting at computer desks, mouse in hand, it was actually the console games released on Playstation 2 that captured my imagination like almost no other game before it, and had me playing to all hours of the morning.  And it was the split-screen mode in the The Sims games on console, particularly The Sims: Bustin’ Out, that are home to some of my favourite gaming memories.

SimsSplitscreenPS2

There is a very personal quality to sitting on a couch next to someone, sharing a screen, and playing the hours away.  And that’s when you’re blowing each others’ heads off and calling each other scumbags.  So imagine that same experience when you’re working together to the same end.  There is a unique trait to The Sims series that has people clambering for the next one and proceeding to spend hours upon hours building (or ruining) the life of their virtual buddies.  It appeals to the apparent human urge to build something from nothing – and the fact that it so abstractly, but in a way closely, resembles everyday life makes it instantly relatable.

But while playing The Sims alone is great fun, it is a whole new experience playing it cooperatively (or destructively if you’re so inclined) sitting next to friends or family.  Raising through the ranks of a social and socio-economic ladder is naturally something you do with others and so in some ways The Sims is built for social play.  Discussing the budgeting of your simoleons and your social life are key as you finely balance the lifestyle and career of the other player with the needs of your own character.  The Sims is a game about optimisation and so throwing another player and their own set of variables adds another layer of complexity to a game that already hides an incredible amount of depth below its casual appeal.  When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see what Maxis were trying to achieve with the latest Sim City and its focus on multiplayer.

You see like real life even the smallest decision – like one to throwing a party to satisfy the social needs of your Sim – can have a serious impost on your virtual buddy and their character’s progress.  After all, waking up tired after a night of thudding techno kept you awake is no way to win that promotion at work.  And so talking about what’s happening in your Sims’ world becomes key to success and reaching your goals. That old adage that you’ve got to work to live is no truer than in The Sims, and so buying that big screen television or that kitchen renovation requires money, and of course more money requires promotions. Discussing money and career around the virtual kitchen table becomes second nature as you both strive to reach the top of the food chain in your career in order to build your dream home.  While that may not get the blood pumping the way blowing a mate’s head off does, for mine it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying discussing how you can cooperate to ‘win’ the game.

The Sims is more complex than its detractors that decry it as casual give it credit for.  More than a game about about virtual avatars living virtual lives, it is a mathematical equation that requires a solution, and a solution that is more fun to work out with friends. But the way this cooperation parallels many of life’s decisions that makes it so unique among multiplayer games, and an experience that I personally haven’t had anywhere else.  Sadly the split-screen feature was removed from the games in The Sims 3, leaving me only with the last-gen entries in the series.  But to me its worth pulling out those dusty old consoles and booting those decade-old games up, because in my opinion, they are quite simply the best cooperative multiplayer gaming experiences around.  And bigger than that, they are a great example of how brilliant local cooperative video gaming can be, and how sad it is that they are few and far between.

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