Review: Drox Operative

Drox Operative Logo

Sometimes, it’s hard to identify what makes a game worthwhile. The enigmatic appeal of dying a thousand times playing Super Meat Boy, for example, should prove alien to anyone who hasn’t spent time in and around its world – especially when it’s held up against its bigger, more forgiving brother, Mario.

In a similar vein, at first glance, Drox Operative is nothing more than Diablo in space, an ARPG made interstellar, complete with an isometric viewpoint and an emphasis on filling your cheeks with as much loot as possible. It’s fundamentally familiar, a fact that works in the game’s favour given the bumps of its indie presentation, but one that also brings to mind the image of a little brother desperately trying to imitate big brother’s walk. While comparisons to the recent resurgence of the genre in Diablo III and Torchlight 2 aren’t too offensive, they also do little to describe the idiosyncrasies that make this sibling so special.

So yes, you click on things a lot in this game, and while Drox Operative falls into the genre’s trappings in so much that it’ll put you at severe risk of RSI, it also innovates enough within those constraints that it jumps ahead of its peers, for both better and Continue reading

2012 In Gaming: My Top Five

The Games of 2012

2012 was an odd one for the world videogames, not least because it marked the seventh year of the current generation of consoles. If E3 was any indication, the glossy boxes that have been sat under our televisions for so long are no longer games consoles – 2012 saw them make the leap into the coveted status of ‘entertainment centres’; which perhaps explains why I spent most of the year waiting for the next big Netflix release.

The current climate in console development seems to be one of alienation; if you aren’t willing to fork out forty pounds on the next glossy shooter, it seems like this generation has already been and gone. Like everyone else, I got roped along into the likes of Amalur and Dishonoured, both of which proved to be hollow imitations of ground well-travelled ten years ago; and as much as I enjoyed Mass Effect 3, it did nothing but damage the series’ legacy with an astounding lack of spit-shine and rational thought. Even my shining beacon of light – Hitman: Absolution – turned out to be nothing but a dwindling flame in the end.

As a result, most of my favourite games appeared on the PC this year, in most cases developed by independent developers. By my estimation, until some new hardware gets announced, the Indies are ruling the roost.

Though I hope I don’t sound too cynical. For any and all complaints, 2012 is also the year that I really learned to appreciate what videogaming could do. Atlus’ Catherine, a 2011 release that only washed up on European shores this February, probably hit me harder than any other experience to date; and acted as the first jab of a one-two punch along with Binary Domain, proving just how effective good characterisation can be with even the smallest injection of interactivity.  Heck; Spelunky, Lollipop Chainsaw, The Legend of Grimrock, SSX – I could sit here and list games all day – but as I’ve come to find, if there’s one thing the internet is lacking right now, it’s a numbered list.

Here are my top five games of 2012.

5. Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3 Cover ArtI’m aware that Max Payne 3 is an oddball choice for a ‘best of the year’ list, and yet the more I think about it, the more deserving it seems. Ultimately, the value of Max Payne 3 hinges on the player’s investment in its tale, and for me, that investment came strong.

Yes, the world is linear, the crescendos are scripted, and the loading times are long; but – provided you have even the slightest care about Max and his descent into the underworld – it’s all justified and disguised within the narrative to the extent that you can ignore most of the game’s shortcomings.

To lay my cards on the table: I adored the story on display here. The tongue-in-cheek charm of the previous, Remedy-developed titles has been lost in translation; but Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 isn’t necessarily a misstep – more of a new direction: a more overt, action-packed take on the noir of old. Max Payne 3’s narrative never feels forced or compromised; it’s a brilliant demonstration of the classic tale of the fallen hero, told with enough of a modern flair that it feels worthwhile.

It’s not without it’s problems, of course. There are certain sections in the game that play the ‘social commentary’ card a bit too hard on-the-nose, and for all of the game’s attempts to afford some sort of thematic significance to Max’s tale, it’s worth remembering that around thirty percent of the game is spent shooting holes in disenfranchised youths in Brazilian favelas. There’s so much of a narrative dissonance between Max’s actions and speech that I find it hard to accuse the game of hypocrisy; it’s somehow gone full-circle back into the realm of sincerity, albeit uneasily so.

The redeeming factor here, then, is Rockstar’s R.A.G.E. engine. Since 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar have clearly been attempting to redefine the relationship between animation and control, and here, their efforts finally pay off. Heading forward through Red Dead Redemption and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, we’ve been able to witness the evolution of the publisher’s attempts to create characters that feel alive – that feel weighted within the world and interact with their surroundings accordingly, and in this regard, Max Payne 3 takes the biggest leap yet.

Characters no longer carry the momentum of freight trains, and turning ‘on the spot’ no longer requires a five meter turning circle. Max feels just as rooted into the world as Niko Bellic or Cole Phelps, but without all of the control hang-ups. His laboured jumps into the air feel suitably ‘chunky’, and his landings even more so, resulting in a painful thud and wheeze of air; perfectly matching the haggard, drunken persona he’s adopted. Getting up from the floor seems to be a task into itself – Max rests his elbows on his knees and arches his back in an attempt to gain some leverage – a triumph of realism, but from a narrative perspective, also testament to just how heavily a lifestyle inspired by John Woo has taken its toll on the protagonist.

None of these animations are firmly scripted. Max dynamically reacts and shifts his weight according to where you aim and move. Dive into a wall for example, and Max will slam into it and crumple to the floor, all the while trying his best to keep his guns centred on the aiming reticule, allowing you to twist, aim and fire, even when at an absolute physical disadvantage. He can’t carry an armoury, either; if there’s no room in his hands for a weapon, he can’t carry it, and it’s impressive unto itself simply watching Max’s model adapt to different combinations of positions and weaponry. Carrying a shotgun in one hand while firing a pistol with the other is a small touch that goes a long way – when it comes time to reload, Max will drop his shotgun under his arm; use his free hand to insert the new clip, then shimmy both weapons back out into reach – and it’s these natural little touches really help ground the story in reality.

That ‘reality’ is the crux of it, really. Videogame narrative and gameplay have often stood in stark contrast to each other in the mainstream: games with ‘gritty, realistic’ storylines will often have gameplay that equates to nothing more than another Master Chief-tinged romp through waves of enemies, only becoming truly ‘realistic’ when it suits them – in the cutscenes. Say what you will about the recent trend towards gritty, brown and grey shooters, but Max Payne 3 finally justifies the trend through more than its cutscenes. Max is as squishy as ever, and the game can be staggeringly difficult at times, in part aided by the restrictions put in place by its dynamic, believable animation systems. For this reason, Max Payne 3 is the only game that I’ve ever felt was expressly ‘realistic’ – strange, when you take the game’s more elaborate set-pieces and bullet-time antics into consideration. The story may not appeal to everyone, but the gameplay complements it every step of the way.

It’s in this regard that I view Max Payne 3 as the ideal reinvention of the franchise; retaining the hallmarks of the series’ past, while still allowing the folks over at Rockstar ample room to reinvent the more dated aspects of the gameplay and narrative. If you were expecting a nostalgic rerun of the Max Payne you left nine years ago, I have no doubt that you’ll leave this game disappointed. This is a true sequel, and a worthy continuation of Max’s story, built with his story in mind.



4. Dear Esther

Dear Esther Logo ArtAs the critical support for Dear Esther died down following its release, I couldn’t help but feel that it caught a lot of flak from people expecting it to be something that, quite frankly, it wasn’t. Does this mean the game misrepresented itself in its marketing? Maybe. The cryptic trailer and gorgeous screenshots were enough to hook me and many others in, but said nothing about what to expect from the experience of playing Dear Esther, least of all that it was essentially a two-hour long walk through some fields. When all is said and done, I can’t necessarily blame others for disliking it. As I noted in my review in March, Dear Esther is a tough one to describe, let alone sell.

Equal parts interactive fiction and tech demo, Dear Esther may lack the traditional frills and hooks of a ‘videogame’, but manages to rise above its initial simplicity with an emphasis on narrative. It doesn’t present its players with a singular, authorial directed meaning, but instead toys with the player’s interactivity and the malleable nature of the experience itself to great effect, in order to create something a bit more personal.

This is a game about discovery and interpretation above all else. Something as simple as a landmark rock formation could have been little more than a fleeting glance for player A, whereas player B may use it as the crux of his narrative, a symbol of culture tying in with his ‘Rosebud was a rock’ theory. Dear Esther’s journey may take place along a linear path, but a sheer saturation of detail, in combination with randomised audio and visual elements, shines a spotlight on the player’s subjective stance on the world along the way.

At risk of elevating the game above its station, I sincerely believe that Dear Esther provides a narrative exclusive to videogaming; one that toys with the boundaries of ambiguity in a way that was previously reserved for independent text-adventures. A book only offers you one perspective on events: if a novel starts off in a sitting room, the author may draw attention to a clock, suggesting that the clock, or the time it represents has some kind of significance, but a lot of other details might not be written down, suggesting that nothing else within that sitting room is important. You can’t bring the rest of the room into question.

In videogames, on the other hand, it’s up to the player to enter the sitting room and distinguish for themselves – informed by their own interpretations – whether the clock is significant, or if there’s anything else in the room that may be more vital to an interpretation of the story. Dear Esther monopolises on this fact, scattering the foundations of its story throughout the world itself, and simply throwing the player forward. Every sign is important. It takes videogaming back to its foundations of raw interaction, providing the means to approach a delicately ambiguous narrative from any perspective.

I have no doubt that the game will be overshadowed by bolder, more purposeful projects in years to come, but for now, it’s an example of what gaming can achieve when it leaves things to the player. This is a world and story that thrives on the death of its author, and the birth of the player within its world. Dear Esther stressed – to me, at the very least – the merits of interactivity at a basic level. Nathan Drake, agent 47 and Soap can go shove it; this story was mine.


3. Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami Logo Poster

I didn’t like Hotline Miami at first. As a matter of fact, after ten minutes with the game, I was left on the verge of sickness. With little in the way of introduction, Hotline Miami throws its player into control of a nameless killer, taking instructions from a shady back-alley figure as to how best kill the three nameless men circling him – resulting in a liberal spattering of brains, blood and guts being spread across the alley’s floor. Anyone who came away from the tutorial for Rockstar’s justly-maligned Manhunt feeling icky should recognise the feeling that this game instils; a bitter mixture of disgust and uncertainty that doesn’t ease up.

Stick with it, because this is a good thing.

Played from a top-down perspective, Hotline Miami never evolves beyond the ‘go here, kill a load of dudes’ stage, and yet manages to innovate enough within those constraints that it appears fresh. There are a few obvious comparisons to be made here: early Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, and Manhunt; oddly enough, all of which have flown under the Rockstar Games banner, and perhaps the best explanation is that Hotline Miami has nailed the Rockstar ‘feel’ – their same shameless experimentation with time and place, and intelligent approach to shock and gore. Whereas the likes of Max Payne aims to evoke the surface atmosphere of 50’s hardboiled noir fiction, Hotline Miami turns its attention towards the surface sleaze and decadence of the 80’s and thrusts it forward as the game’s defining ethos, much akin to Nicholas Winding Refn’s breakout hit last year, Drive.

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that this game owes a tremendous debt to Refn’s work, either. From its casual heapings of hyper-violence to a soundtrack oozing seedy electronica (not to mention a trailer that clearly pays its dues), Hotline Miami layers its tale over the same neon underground that worked so well for Drive just over a year ago, inverting its lighter emotional finesse in favour of pure viscera. Just imagine the elevator scene in Drive, if it were placed on repeat and turned into a videogame, and you’ll know what to expect here.

Granted, it may not have the largest body-count, but every death is portrayed with such a gruesome attention to detail that Hotline Miami may end up leaving even the most heavily-weathered of gorehounds feeling a little uncomfortable. The juxtaposition between garish purples, reds and greens and the viscera that comes to obscure them is unsettling, and applies an edge to the visuals that never quite wears off.

Hotline Miami remains interesting solely because it rationalises hyper-violence without any regards for morality. Through its overwhelmingly intimidating – and yet satisfying – difficulty and an emphasis on tight mechanical gameplay, it manages to force its player into having fun, regardless of the subject matter, creating a jarring thematic conflict between the ick and the slick. It will leave you curled up crying in the shower the next morning, sure, but you’ll come to love it for taking you there.


2. Telltale’s The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Cover ArtIt took me a while to come to terms with Telltale. Back when they picked up the long-defunct Sam and Max franchise, the gaming media highlighted them as the saviours of adventure gaming, a genre that, ever since I first sat in front of Monkey Island on the Amiga, I’ve absolutely loved, from the highlights of Grim Fandango through to the more questionable lowlights of the AGS archives.

After playing through the first series of Sam and Max, however, I can remember feeling a distinct disappointment – taken by the belief that they were simply watering down the tropes of the genre and presenting them in a sickeningly palatable form, a feeling that only grew as they moved onto Monkey Island, Back to the Future, and the woeful Jurassic Park. With studios as great as Wadjet Eye going unnoticed in the shadow of Telltale’s increasingly ham-fisted work, I couldn’t help but remain bitter as Telltale continued to grow.

So I suppose it speaks volumes about their episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead, that I can now sing their praises along with everyone else. If Dear Esther proved the virtues of an emergent narrative, then The Walking Dead did the same for a scripted one, building on the foundations left by the Mass Effect series and proving once again how far videogames have come in the last five years.

Oddly enough for a game so concerned with ‘choice’, however, The Walking Dead doesn’t alter its story structure based on the players decisions (Alpha Protocol has already stolen that spotlight, anyway), the main story beats will always remain the same in any given play through of the game, with only slight divergences with regards to time, people and places. Where The Walking Dead excels is in its ability to personalise its linear narrative, and the extent to which your crew of apocalypse survivors will change based on your interactions. The subtle shifts in dialogue that occur as a result of character’s shifting stances on your decisions throughout the series really bring home the idea that this is your story, even if everyone will end up in the same place anyway. To state that The Walking Dead offers the illusion of choice would probably be right, if insulting to just how malleable its interactions eventually prove. My decisions may not have crafted this story from the ground up, but they gave it a heart and character that was all my own, both for better and worse.

It helps that the writing is genuinely gut-wrenching, and even though the voice acting may occasionally falter, The Walking Dead never ceases to gun for the emotional jugular. It’s popcorn stuff, done well. Whether or not you’re interested in the whole ‘choose your own adventure’ shtick, it’s worth playing if simply for the closing twenty minutes. This is ‘cinematic’ gaming done right.


1. Fez

Fez Logo Art

Not only my favourite game of the year, but most likely of the last five, I’ve never before played a game like Fez, and I doubt I ever will again. Within the space of 20 or so hours, it managed to present me with a grand tapestry of unique, oft-contradictory puzzle elements, all working in tandem to form an inexplicably cohesive whole. ARG elements, puzzles that change based on each individual player, Kojima-esque utilisations of the controller and console, and even the classic ‘change the system clock around’ bit, all presented with a clear reverence of gaming’s history on a distinctly personal level.

In Fez you control Gomez Gomez, an adorably goofy 2D being living in a 3D world. Five minutes into the game you’re presented with the titular fez, a transcendent bit of headwear that allows you to rotate the world in 90 degree increments around you and its inhabitants. Most of the game’s earlier puzzles revolve (ha!) around this element, forcing you to adapt your 3D surroundings to best fit your 2D interactions within the world, somewhat akin to Echochrome‘s experimentation with perspective. Akin to Valve’s Portal – you should embrace the fact that your earlier moments with the game will be spent having your mind fall into disarray.

The game’s open world approach to puzzle-solving is equally novel, allowing you to work your way through the game while still admitting defeat in the face of its grander challenges. Developer Phil Fish has crafted a game that encourages you to step away from walkthroughs, and merely onwards, towards the next puzzle. Not to mention: multiple, logical, solutions present themselves for numerous puzzles and mysteries, and this really goes lengths towards creating a world that feels real, and oozes mystery.

One of the game’s earliest overarching mysteries is the world’s fictional language, found littered throughout the game’s surroundings and dialogue. While standard cryptography skills like pattern recognition and frequency analysis could easily allow you to decode it, the game throws enough hints out there for people who might not feel up to that particular task, ensuring that no mental approach gets left behind. The fact alone that you’re never offered a codex to spell everything out for you is a miracle of game design. Hearing that familiar jingle every time you solve a puzzle is made so much more gratifying under the knowledge that you had no assistance getting to it.

Fez might sell itself as a standard platformer, but the sheer depth of this particular rabbit hole is commendable. You’ll barely scratch the surface of the game on the first playthrough, and if you want explore every corner of Fez as intended, a notebook and pen are absolutely necessary. By the time I was finished, I had a double-sided sheet of A4 that looked like Dr. Jones’ notes on the holy-grail.

For me, Fez was a modernisation of the experience of retro gaming. The puzzles are hard, the world is demanding, and in releasing exclusively on what is arguably the most closed system on the market, the puzzles and world stayed that way for a long time. The first week or so following the game’s release was genuinely a special thing – very few people had the inclination or means to delve into the game and start decompiling and deconstructing code and assets, and so people worked together within the game’s boundaries to solve the game’s puzzles, one at a time, and it lasted just long enough to keep people speculating and working away around the clock – without resorting to XNA decompilers or voodoo.

At the risk of sounding inflammatory, I’m glad that this game wasn’t initially launched with a PC version, because I think that the open nature of the system would have ultimately spoiled a large degree of the game’s mystery. By all means, I’m hoping for a staggered release now that the game’s core mysteries have been resolved, but for its week of release, I was just glad that the gaming community got to play right into Phil Fish’s hands and experience the game as intended: collaboratively staggering into the unknown, relying on patience and effort rather than technical know-how and hacks.

For a brief moment, Fez managed to bring the playground mentality back into the internet age – somewhat ironically, over the internet. All you have to do is look at any series of posts on GameFAQs, GiantBomb or NeoGAF from the first week of the game’s release to realise just how successfully this game caught the zeitgeist. People swapped bullshit stories and tips, speculated on what was to come, and praised and derided the eventual solutions in equal measure.

It’ll never quite recover that same initial sense of wonder, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still the best game of the year – it remains one of the most emotional, atmospheric and rewarding games I’ve ever played. Fez is an enigma within an enigma; a transcendent dive into the unknown crafted to perfection. Fez, put simply, is something else.

Silent Hill 2: A Retrospective

(Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fixed Camera Angle)Silent Hill 2 Director's Cut Logo

Eleven years ago, I had to give up on Silent Hill 2. Even under the direction of a friend – who informed me that he’d just found the ‘coolest game ever’ – I could barely make it past the game’s first ‘proper’ challenge: the labyrinthine apartment block that acts as its introduction (and an introduction which, for the record, dominated many a nightmare for years to come). Silent Hill 2 was eerie in a way that even the franchise’s long-running competitor, Resident Evil, couldn’t quite manage. It’s atmosphere was tangibly oppressive.

Driven by a desire to see the experience through, I returned to it again and again, each time beating my chest and throwing out countless hollow platitudes, taken by the belief that I could make the horror go away. Most of the time, I was wrong.

The platitudes never helped. Nor, for that matter, did opening all the curtains and playing the game in beaming sunlight. Eventually, however, I arrived at the game’s conclusion, and breathed a long-deserved sigh of relief.

At the time, I’d enjoyed it as a challenge; as a mark of bravery, but in retrospect it became just another one of those dumb games I’d played to pass the time before growing up. I’d appreciated it, if begrudgingly, for the countless hours it took to finish, but never really looked back; Silent Hill 2 became a footnote in the grander scheme of adolescence.

Cut to about two weeks ago, however, and I was once again sat at the game’s title screen – this time on PC – having decided to give it another run to see whether all those nightmares were justified. Cut to about an hour after that, and the game was shelved once more, set aside for a braver day.

If there’s one thing to be noted returning to Silent Hill 2 after ten years, it’s that it remains an unbelievably intimidating experience.

Silent Hill 2 Gallows Room

Having mostly forgotten the specifics of the game, the first thing to jump back at me was the soundtrack. Composed by Akira Yamaoka, it’s a muddy, grinding mess; a jumble of bassy synths, heavy breathing, and screeching machinery, occasionally broken up with a bit of light acoustic guitar. Far removed from the tired, wailing strings that have come to dominate the genre, Akira’s work blends the innocent romanticism of the American Northeast with something much more sinister, and the dissonance between the two creates a tension that never quite resides. The more I think about it, the more it sums up the game as a whole.

The titular Silent Hill is a place defined by its juxtapositions. The merging of an otherwise-innocent community with the unspeakable horrors of hell is hardly a revelation – Stephen King has written that book at least thirty times in his career alone, but here, the concept is brought kicking and screaming into the interactive format. The game’s narrative is one of the richest in videogaming — thanks in large part to the way in which it is rooted in the act of playing —  and slides to great effect between the metaphorical and the literal without ever quite revealing itself.

At its core, Silent Hill 2 is a story of love and loss, but in a more bodily sense, tackling the ideas of sexual repression and low self-esteem that can stem from a life-shaking personal event. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t present a doomsday scenario, or contrive lore to explain its every creation scientifically; it doesn’t have a codex, or an encyclopaedia – it’s simply a story about a small group of people coming to terms with life, set in a town that gives them the means to do so. The Silent Hill franchise may have flown off the rails in trying to give the town global/universal/dimensional significance, but back when Silent Hill 2 came out, the idea was still pure, focused and personal – and all the better for it.

Silent Hill 2 PC Bathroom

Pictured: Purity

Silent Hill 2 throws its player into the shoes of James Sunderland, a troubled widower drawn to the titular town in the belief that his wife may still be alive there; despite the fact that he witnessed her death at the hands of cancer two years prior. As in the rest of the series, Silent Hill adapts itself to the worries of its protagonist, and it’s from here that the game progresses, funnelling James deeper into a literal manifestation of his own psyche in the search of answers. As a result, the town is heavily laden with symbolism; a compacted vision of his time with his wife, and little is left to cutscenes or text dumps other than the key story beats. In Silent Hill 2, the town is the story, and we’re guided into assumptions based on James’ visions of Silent Hill and his reactions to them.

All the while, there are four additional characters roaming the town’s streets, each more unhinged than the last, each plagued by their own set of horrors resulting from their own – and James’ – grievances. If there’s one thing that struck me about the whole experience, it’s how concentrated it all is. As large as the playable area of Silent Hill may seem at first, in the context of the story progression, it’s surprisingly small. As is typical of survival horror, it’s entirely possible that you could blow through the game in just a few hours and be done with it, and where Silent Hill finds its value is in the attention to detail along the way. Every character is drenched in their own subset of imagery – their own themes; in the audio, the video, and the narrative – and it all comes together to form a cohesive picture of grief, albeit one painted in blood and tears.

The game’s prolonged stop at Silent Hill’s decrepit hospital, for example, is no coincidence. The increasingly begrimed walls and images of death and decay evolve and spread like the cancer that killed James’ wife, and come to represent his internalisation of the few visits to the building in which he would eventually watch her die.  In this regard, the hospital serves as the game’s thematic core, and the rest of the experience spirals outwards from it, taking its players to key areas from its characters’ pasts in order to explore the woes of love, loss and regret in explicitly physical terms. Silent Hill 2’s narrative continually proves itself to be darkly intelligent, much more so than I remembered.

Silent Hill 2 Maria Cutscene Boardwalk

If the dichotomy between the doe-eyed James and the horrifying environment of his mind’s creation wasn’t enough; Maria (pictured) further explores the duality of the human psyche. She is a sinister, sexual doppelganger of his wife, Mary.

If you’ve read my bit on the recent outbreak of indie horror games, then it should come as no surprise to learn that Silent Hill 2 isn’t even a fun game; it’s an oppressive glimpse into humanity’s immoral tendencies, and the overall experience of playing is topped with a relentlessly unforgiving atmosphere reflecting this grim outlook. Movement is deliberately slow and laboured, placing a greater emphasis on smaller encounters, and – following the precedent set by the first game’s technical limitations – the whole thing is drenched in fog and darkness, so much so that you’re lucky to ever see more than a few feet in front of your face, even when equipped with a flashlight.

That last point may prove particularly irksome to some, too, considering that there are some genuinely unsettling creatures lurking behind the fog, topping out at a moving, writhing depiction of incestuous rape. As much as I feel like I need a shower after typing that, it’s contextualised within the narrative and subtle enough that it comes across as more sophisticated than the shock value of its description would suggest (but that still doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to witness).  Silent Hill 2 is a horror game with modesty – walls drip with blood, sure, but in moderation; and while a lot of its scares may be tried-and-tested in the bigger picture of the genre, it paces and delivers them in such a way that they seem new. Nothing appears contrived for shock value, or created purely to look as grotesque as possible, and as a result, it doesn’t give us anything quite as ridiculous as Resident Evil’s shoulder-eyeball antics.

The man responsible for this decision, monster designer Masahiro Ito, has made clear that his ‘basic idea in creating the monsters of Silent Hill 2 was to give them a human aspect’, and it’s this human aspect, and it’s concentrated removal, that keeps Silent Hill 2 grounded and believable, even in its most bizarre moments. The aforementioned hospital environment, for example, introduces its own monstrosities to the fold, the now-stalwart ‘bubblehead’ nurses; silent, faceless apparitions of the building’s former workers. As what can be seen as the beginning of the game’s ‘deeper’ exploration of James’ anxieties, the nurses are, in a strange turn from the game’s previous offerings, somewhat sexy, sporting short skirts and coyly exposed cleavage – rotten and bloodied, of course, but still conforming to a physical ideal atypical of standard horror creations.

As character artist Takayoshi Sato explains, ‘everybody is thinking and concerned about sex and death, [so we] tried to mix erotic essence…this is a kind of a visual and a core concept’. The twisting, faceless nurses that inhabit the hospital’s wards exemplify this ‘erotic essence’, embodying James’ sexual frustrations during his wife’s illness, and a guilt over his natural sexual urges. In speaking on the ‘main factors that evoke fear’, Sato expresses humanities reluctance ‘to see concealed their true-self’, a fear made all-too clear in James’ visions of the nurses (and the rest of the game’s creatures, for that matter).

Again, it remains impressive just how concentrated Silent Hill 2 proves to be, reigning in videogaming’s tendencies to aim for the stars and instead portraying something more realistic and relatable. Given this microscopic focus on detail, even something as simple as James’ radio – the game’s analog to a radar, which floods with static as enemies come closer – serves as a firm symbolic statement of communication, a means through which James can converse with his subconscious, and in gameplay terms, avoid the negative manifestations of his own mind that threaten this conversational ability. When it comes to the surreal and the weird, it helps if there’s some underlying support holding everything together, a thematic backbone that can make the inexplicable explicable, and in this regard, Silent Hill 2 never strays too far from its own support.

Silent Hill 2 Apartment TV Room

One of the biggest surprises for me was how nicely the game holds up for its age. Sure, it’s still positioned in that awkward PS2-era bracket where animations and geometry can come across stiff and flat, but it’s sure enough in its art direction and texture work that it ignores system limitations, in a similar vein to Resident Evil 4 or Shadow of the Colossus.

The denizens of Silent Hill are as grotesque and gnarled as ever, from the mechanical spiders that roam its streets, to ‘those guys with pyramids on their heads’; visually, Silent Hill 2 still stands its ground. I suppose polygon count doesn’t stand for much when ninety percent of your creations are twitching masses of flesh. To this day, the bizarre spasms of an approaching ghoul are still enough to give me a severe case of the heebie-jeebies, probably even more so now that I understand what they’re meant to represent.

Complementing this, Silent Hill 2 tries it’s hardest to shy away from the Resident Evil/Dead Space ‘monster in the closet’ approach. Creepy as they may be, enemies are sparse in Silent Hill, especially towards the game’s earlier half; and if you’re familiar with the genre, that can end up being the scariest thing about Silent Hill 2. Subtle, one-off audio cues are thrown at you to brilliant effect, from the sudden, cut-off wail of a woman’s scream coming from a toilet cubicle you just checked, to the thunderous, approaching footsteps of something better left alone approaching you in the darkness, a vast majority of which might not ever culminate in any actual action. ‘Pyramid Head’, the game’s closest analog to an antagonist, serves up the occasional ‘boo’ scare, but almost everything else is left within the mind, and it pays off tenfold.

Silent Hill 2 PC Town Fog Gameplay

There’s one part in particular that cemented Silent Hill 2’s greatness for me and, like the rest of the game, it went largely unannounced. Through a lovably contrived twist of fate, there’s a point towards the game’s later half in which the player is left defenseless, forced to roam Silent Hill’s familiar, twisted halls with the training wheels off. It’s a segment that’s just about as mischievously evil as you’d imagine, leaving the player with no option but to crawl into the corner, adopt the foetal position and mash every button on the controller in an attempt to bite at the ankles of their aggressors, while they take their opportunity to return in kind. It’s spooky as they come, and especially clever in the way that it mixes up enemy spawning patterns, meaning that even when you decide to kick the controller into ‘flail and run around screaming’ mode, you still can’t quite predict how to get past the ghouls in your way.

For me, the most chilling and game-defining moment was an unassuming corridor just seconds into that section; a simple ‘L’-bend that branched off into a small corridor with no purpose, other than to look intimidating. If the screenshots dashed around the page aren’t enough indication, Silent Hill 2’s particular blend of third-person action is dictated by fixed camera angles, the kind that could instil a sense of claustrophobia in an industrial mine-worker. As anti-climactic as it may sound, that single corridor, obscured by a shifty camera, and completely inoffensive in the grand scheme of Silent Hill’s horrors, pushed me to my absolute limits. Building up the courage to progress took me longer than I’d care to admit.

Silent Hill 2 Hotel Elevator Corridor

Pictured: One man’s terror

It’s because of cases like these that, come any discussion concerning Silent Hill, or the earlier Resident Evil games (or in some rare circles, Alone in the Dark or Dino Crisis), I’ll always be the first to defend fixed camera angles, and by extension, ‘tank’ controls.

While the sole bastion of most popular videogame writing is the vacuous entity known only as ‘the gameplay’, I’m a firm believer that, unless you’re looking to make an ‘arcade’ style game wherein snappy mechanics sit above all else (and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that), the developer’s first concern should be the desired experience –the story, the feel; and the gameplay should work in favour of this experience.

Especially in horror – gameplay decisions that aren’t necessarily conducive to the arcade ideal of ‘fun’ shouldn’t be seen as bad things. Tank controls might be a misstep for a more action-oriented game, but in horror, they play perfectly into the feeling of powerlessness and tension that are the staples of the genre. The fixed camera angle isn’t practical – heck, it isn’t even realistic – but then, neither is using a £20 hunk of plastic to manoeuvre around the world.

The problem with chasing realism in videogames is ultimately: until we reach that zenith of an immersive virtual reality, we’re still just guys and gals sat on our asses in front of a row of buttons. A realistic horror experience, ironically enough, isn’t a horrifying one in videogaming, because we’ll always be that one step removed from the ‘reality’ presented. More responsive controls might help us better approximate real human movement, but they’ve killed more experiences than I can count. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s better that we handicap ourselves with restrictive styles like the fixed camera angle if it conveys the fear of a situation more appropriately than pin-point, Halo controls. There’s a reason why Amnesia’s sanity effects spat in the face of the precision of a keyboard and mouse.

Silent Hill 2 has an odd evolution of the fixed camera angle, one that can obscure vital information about what’s to come, and trick the mind into seeing things that aren’t there. It has sluggish controls, and makes turning corners in a pinch much harder than it would be in any other game – essentially condemning the player to a slew of stressful encounters, and slowing the game’s pace down to a crawl. By most conceivable metrics, Silent Hill 2’s entire system of control seems regressive – and yet this only works in its favour.

Silent Hill 2 PC Prison

It may seem unnecessary to dedicate so much real estate to one small feature, especially one as debatable as this game’s cumbersome controls, but as I’ve come to find, it’s these little things that prove most endearing in Silent Hill 2, and videogaming as a whole; the unannounced details that creep up on you and hit you where you least expect it. A lot of Silent Hill 2’s  design decisions may seem ass-backwards when starting out, but I found myself agreeing with them more and more as the experience went on, to the point at which I’d say it couldn’t have been done any other way. Games like Dead Space and Condemned, as fond as I am of those particular series, fall into one of the worst traps of modern horror, in that they grant their players too much power over their horror  elements – they don’t take enough risks, and as a result, announce all of their scares

In Silent Hill 2 this idea is completely inverted – it may occasionally present you with an ammo dump or a ‘keep out’ sign so obvious, that you can’t help but find yourself on edge. It might throw a storage cupboard into view, full of goodies, then funnel you into a wide, open space- and leave you free of enemies for upwards of ten minutes, left to suffer from your own anxieties and assumptions. It’s a game where the scares are derived from the player’s knowledge of the medium, in tandem with the developer’s understanding of interactivity, rather than some tired Hollywood ideal of what should go bump in the night. Very few punches are telegraphed in Silent Hill 2, and it helps keep the player on edge; and draws attention to some of the smaller details, fostering a sense of paranoia than only grows as the game progresses. You probably won’t find the ‘corridor of doom’ as terrifying as I did, but I have no doubt that there’ll be something else in this game that will eventually get to you; whether it be a shivering wall of creatures or something as simple as a flickering light.

Silent Hill 2 PC Hospital Nurses

Again, it’s these sorts of juxtapositions that define the game; bad ideas made good, the innocent perverted, and perhaps most important of all, a videogame made clever. If you were like me, and never quite got around to putting the lid on this game – or better yet, if you’ve never played it at all: pick up a copy on PS2 or PC (not the god-awful HD port) and set aside some time in the dark to get into this one, because it remains one of the most relentlessly atmospheric and rewardingly cerebral games ever made.

I took some time away from this little write-up before posting, just to make sure I’d support myself in such a bold closing statement, but heck, I can’t think of a game more set in its aims, and more accomplished in delivery. It has its quirks sure, but when it comes to horror in videogames Silent Hill 2 is perfect.

If you want to find out more about Silent Hill 2, then you can view the once-DVD-exclusive ‘Making Of’ here (transcribed here), or head on over to Silent Hill Memories, a series-specific site that borders on the fanatical, in the best possible way. Shamus Young has a rather neat plot analysis over on his personal site and Twin Perfect have collected every reason not to buy the HD collection as part of their season-long look at the series. Failing that, Wikipedia is always just a click away, assuming you’re willing to brave a potential mugging by Jimmy Wales.

Silent Hill 2 PC Pyramid Head Fight

Review: Hitman Absolution

Hitman Absolution Logo

Context is an important thing. Without a whole slew of identical games before it, Medal of Honour: Warfighter would have been regarded as one of the best games of this year. Without such a ridiculous marketing push, Daikatana might have escaped critical humiliation. Likewise, without knowing a thing about the barcode on the back of Agent 47’s head, you could assume that he’s a genuine human being.

So goes the premise of Hitman: Absolution, the most recent entry in IO Interactive’s Hitman series. Scoffing at the titular agent’s previous cold demeanour, Absolution dares to give the Hitman a soul, and in doing so, paves the way for the most narrative-driven – and in many ways, the most disappointing – Hitman game yet.

Hitman Absolution Agent 47 Face

Within the opening hour of Hitman: Absolution, Agent 47 (now directly identified as ‘The Hitman’) fulfills an assassination contract on his long-time handler, Diana Burnwood, only to realize two seconds later that maybe it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Complying with Diana’s dying wish; he agrees to protect a young girl from a whole host of characters looking to claim her in the name of genetic voodoo, and sets in motion a chain of events that… well, don’t really make sense.

If I have one problem with the series’ newfound narrative focus, it’s that the narrative itself is god-awful. Impressive voice acting and motion capture are destroyed by a plot that proves itself to be completely inept. The general mood seems to gravitate towards a faux-grind-house style, complete with big breasts, backwater murderers and an obnoxious grain filter; and if one thing has been proven in recent years, it’s that big budget grind-house experiences don’t work – by nature; they’re antithetical to the premise of the genre. When an initial target dies questioning an impromptu death-boner, you can’t help but be forced to wonder what happened to subtlety. I have nothing against Tarantino’s introduction of sleaze-cinema to the mass market, but Hitman Absolution is a perfect example of its more regrettable influences. The story on display here is a complete bastardization of everything that makes the dumb so endearing.

What’s worse is that it will occasionally lapse into sincerity, and expect you to come along with it, in some cases mere minutes after witnessing the last Rodriguez inspired blunder. Tonally inconsistent, woefully misguided, and in complete opposition to the series’ previous sombre outings, Absolution’s story is, in short, a huge mistake.

Hitman Absolution Stealth Screenshot

Of course, Hitman has never proved itself too reliable in the story department, so this turnout should prove relatively inoffensive to fans of the series. The real concern lies in the alterations that IO Interactive have made to the core gameplay. Of Absolution’s twenty missions, only four or five follow the ‘traditional’ Hitman formula – that being, locking you in a large, closed system with a target to kill and a place to escape. The bulk of the game is instead composed of smaller systems, often no bigger than a couple of rooms, linked together by linear stealth segments. The bulk of the game’s content takes a backseat to a story that most people won’t even care about.

Clearly, it’s not Hitman as we know it, but perhaps it’s not entirely removed from the chrome-domed beauty we know and love, either. As a matter of fact, when it comes to game mechanics, Absolution provides its most compelling case for existence, and alters a lot of the series’ set-in-stone workings. Gone are the pinpoint, almost Quake-precision levels of control that the series once provided, giving way to a more concentrated movement, reminiscent of a deliberate tactical shooter. While this may create a poor first impression with the Hitman Old Guard, it goes great lengths towards grounding 47 in the world, free of the ‘floaty’ feel of previous entries. For the first time, he actually looks like a plausible human being. The hallmark disguise system has also been overhauled and geared towards creating a greater challenge, and for better or worse, succeeds.

There are a few glaring flaws in these new systems though, the most infuriating of which being the enemies ability to notice 47 at a short glance, from the other side of a room, even when he’s wearing a mask that should for all intents and purposes render him incognito. Once you’ve learned the systems, it doesn’t prove to be too much of a problem, and, admittedly, helps balance the game out; but it’s indicative of just how far you have to suspend your disbelief in order to stay immersed in game’s world.

Whereas the Hitman series was once renowned for stepping outside of the boundaries of the stealth genre, Absolution falls into the trappings of most stealth games in that you’ll find yourself feeling alienated until you’ve come to terms with the minutiae of the AI’s behaviour. It’s a videogame, full of videogame systems, and any steps taken towards a more realistic aesthetic have been lost in the mechanics’ move away from common sense.

Hitman Absolution Gameplay

In theory, the game’s mechanics are capable of giving us the best Hitman game to date. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we’ve been given. If there’s one major flaw with Absolution, it lies in the level design. As a substitute for Hitman‘s usual emergent sandboxes, we’re presented with an assortment of narrative focused scenarios that drift in and out of plausibility far too much. A large portion of the series’ charm lies in the realism of its environments – they’ve always been coloured by the wacky and wonderful, but never to the ridiculous extent portrayed in Absolution.

It was around the point at which I was sneaking into a Bond villain-calibre weapons lab, surrounded by exploding pigs, that I had to stop and think about what, exactly, the designers were hoping to achieve. The world around 47 has lost its sincerity, apparently devolving into absolute chaos in the six year gap between games, and as a result, there’s less fun to be found in bringing any of your own chaos into the mix. It’s hard to feel like a the sole chaotic element in a system when you’re confronted with a group of latex-clad super-nuns in an exploding pig factory.

Although plausibility is the least of Absolution’s concerns when even its flagship levels, such as the oft-publicised ‘Streets of Hope’, just feel limited in scope compared to the series’ previous attempts. Your options are no longer emergent, they’re scripted, a fact made blatantly obvious in the game’s new ‘challenges’ screen, which for the most part gives you a comprehensive outline of every way to approach a level, often limited to no more than eight or nine approaches. It has replay value, sure, but it’s all prescribed for you, set out in digestible chunks in the form of a dishearteningly uninspired list. The levels feel less dynamic – less like a closed system, and more like a traditional, Splinter Cell-style shadow run through the developer’s gauntlet.

Most of Absolution‘s achievements are purely technical.  IO’s new Glacier 2 engine proves stunning on both console and PC, and finally does justice to the ‘neon grime’ art design that was so prevalent, and yet technically restrained in the earlier Hitman: Contracts. Blood Money’s awkward middle-ground discounted, it’s great to finally see a high-definition Hitman game; and the capabilities of the technology really shine through as early as the game’s second level, where bustling crowds are realised in a much more reactive, dynamic faction than in the series’ previous efforts. Square Enix, first-time publisher of the series, are obviously putting some of their money in the right places; Absolution is the first IO Interactive game that feels like it’s been given a proper spit-shine, and accentuates their confidence and skill as developers as a result. (Consider yourself forewarned, however, a few sections have the ‘glare’ slider set to ‘five thousand suns’. Some of Absolution’s brighter areas forced me to literally squint at the screen to avoid eye damage.)

Hitman Absolution Crowd Screenshot

The game also attempts to find some degree of absolution (GEDDIT?) in a mode, confusingly enough, titled Hitman: Contracts (also, there’s a mission called ‘Hunter and Hunted’ – completely unrelated to Contracts’ closing mission of the same name – someone over at IO Interactive seems intent on messing with us). While some of the single player campaigns missions might leave you feeling a little underwhelmed, Contracts mode attempts to alleviate those concerns, allowing you to pick any mission and turn it into a more traditional assassination via an on-the-fly mission editor. The ability to choose any segment of any level is appreciated, allowing you to cherry-pick choice sections from otherwise bland levels and turn them into something closer resembling the Hitman of old. It’s surprising how distinctly a sudden change of focus can affect some of the game’s more debatable segments, in some cases transforming once-linear shadow-crawls into semi-open sandboxes. It doesn’t fix the broken level design, but at least tends itself towards more dynamic, systems-heavy approaches to missions; though if you’re anything like me, it’ll just make you want to play Blood Money again.

This is a petty complaint, too, but it’s worth remembering that the Contracts mode is subject to your ability to stay online – so if, like me, you have a connection that isn’t quite stable, expect the game to forcibly remove you when the line drops. If anything, it just reminds me that one day, the servers will be thrown offline for good and it’ll be left inaccessible in the vanilla game – a shame, considering it’s one of Absolution’s greatest additions to the franchise, and is gated behind an unreliable barrier. The day Contracts goes offline, Absolution ceases to be a worthwhile product.

Hitman Absolution Blackwater Gameplay

Absolution is exceptionally well-polished, there’s no doubt about that. The real problem lies in the series’ legacy and the game’s necessity and possible inclusion within it. Given the Hitman series’ reputation for innovation in the stealth genre, I think it’s fair to expect something more than a ‘decent’ game; and Absolution’s advancement towards a Bourne-esque middle ground feels unnecessary and even detrimental to the franchise’s identity. I can’t imagine I’ll find myself returning to play this one for years on end, as I did with previous entries in the series, chiefly because it feels so familiar – not to other Hitman games, but to other, less distinct entries in the stealth genre as a whole.

A lot of the comparisons to Splinter Cell: Conviction are unfair, but certain missions really do fall into the blockbuster trappings indicative of a ‘dumbing down’ of the series’ core ideas. Levels are beautifully envisioned, and fun to replay, but not in the same way that they have been, especially when the in-game systems, such as the persistent score meter and lack of checkpoints, seem to act in direct opposition to the experimentation that had previously proven central to the series’ allure.

It’s a weird phenomenon, in that it occupies a space in which it’s not quite deep-rooted enough to satisfy core Hitman fans, and yet may be a bit too abstract for the average consumer. I’m sure sales figures will tell otherwise, but Absolution sits in an odd place, and will no doubt be viewed as the bastard child of the series for a long time to come.

That said, I’m not wholly dismissive of the game’s efforts, and it’s worth taking the internet’s knee-jerk reaction with a pinch of salt, Absolution doesn’t exactly spit in the face of everything that’s come before, as a matter of fact, it proves to be slyly self-referential throughout. The game’s penultimate mission, for example, seems to act as a veiled tribute to the fan-favourite Contracts level, ‘Traditions of the Trade’, while levels as seemingly unique as those in Chicago Chinatown are coyly reminiscent of the first game’s middle section. Non-player character dialogue is tighter than ever before, and proves funny and disturbing in equal measure, playing into the veiled sense of voyeurism that no doubt led most to become Hitman fans in the first place, and grind-house failings aside, there’s still plenty of IO Interactive’s wacky, unannounced humour present, from weapons-grade toilet plungers to giant chipmunk costumes ripe for combination, and even a surprise cameo by the protagonists of IO’s other prominent videogame franchise.

Hitman Absolution Hope Screenshot

Overall, Absolution is a fun diversion, but doesn’t quite strike that same magical vein that previous entries dug so deep into. If anything, it’s reminiscent of Dishonoured’s recent release and reception: to me, it seems that big-budget gaming is so starved of genuinely divergent and emergent experiences that we’ll happily jump on the lap of any blockbuster title that provides us with a modicum of player choice, longing for the days of Deus Ex and Hitman 2, when ‘choice’ was still a common factor, and not a game-selling gimmick. Hitman: Absolution fares better than other recent efforts, but remains indicative of a negative trend in triple-A development. Again, context is an important thing. If you’ve never played a Hitman game before, you’ll be able to have some meaningless fun with this one, sure. Play it in the context of the series as a whole, however, and you’ll be left twenty hours short with a slightly sour taste in your mouth.