Saturday, 29 December 2007

Halo 3

Halo 3I fell in love with this game when browsing a replay movie. As Master Chief, the last hope for humanity, I had fought my way down a bog-standard corridor on my way to more exciting stuff. Watching the replay, I paused the game and zipped the camera down to the other end of the corridor to watch my death-dealing approach from the point of view of my enemies. That was cool enough in itself, but then I noticed one of the pint-sized grunts running off down a corridor. What was he doing? I took the camera down that same corridor, and watched him hide in the darkness as I ran past. Once I was gone, the grunt said with relief (words to the effect of), “I’m glad he’s gone!” Genius! I’ve rarely seen such attention to detail in a game – or perhaps it’s better to say that the attention to detail has never been highlighted in such an effective way. Like the achievements you can gain in this and other Xbox 360 games, the features of Halo 3 encourage you to play and explore the game to its fullest.

I haven’t talked yet about the gameplay itself. I wasn’t a huge fan of Halo and Halo 2, perhaps as a result of picking them up a few years after their release, by which time I’d already played other games incorporating their innovations. I’ve always found online gaming a bit of a chore, which killed part of their appeal for me. I also, to be honest, found them a bit hard!

I’m enjoying Halo 3 much more. For one thing, I’m finding it easier, thanks to your health (at least on the Easy level) being a single shield, which fully recharges in cover, avoiding the death by attrition which always did for me in the previous two games. For another, it’s currently the state of the art in videogames, and so its ideas are as yet unsullied by imitators.

The gameplay options it offers are endless, both in terms of online options, but also in every individual moment – every weapon has its uses in every situation, and every situation responds to a dozen different approaches.

Finally, we are always starved of proper, full-on, big-budget science fiction in the cinema. So it’s a joy to watch a science fiction story as epic as Halo 3’s unfurl, even if it’s on the small screen.

There’s a lot more to be said about this game; the game itself is a conversation that will continue for years to come. Despite playing it all the way through I’ve barely scratched its surface. In terms of Hollywood blockbusters, Halo 3 would be The Matrix or the Lord of the Rings, movies that satisfy on a visceral level, but also repay and stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Originally published in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #20.

Halo 3, Bungie (dev.). US, Xbox 360.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Earth Defence Force 2017 / review by Stephen Theaker

Earth Defense Force 2017Imagine if Godzilla didn’t turn up for one of his movies, and humans had to fight the alien menace in his stead! Or if the creatures from Starship Troopers landed on Earth! This is mindless fun at its purest, as you run around blasting alien invaders with your bazookas and missiles.

It’s easy to see why the game has found a home on the Xbox 360, following the huge sales of other pick-up-and-play games via the Xbox Live Arcade.

The only hint of strategy lies in your choice of weapons before each mission, and that’s a lot of fun – do you go in with two sets of bazookas, or a bazooka and shotgun, or a long-range homing missile and a sniper rifle? There’s a lot of choice. I haven’t spent much time using the vehicles dotted around the landscapes – like Crackdown, this is too much fun on foot to make the vehicles attractive.

One notable thing about this game is its huge draw distance, meaning that it’s common to see giant ants and spiders hopping over a distant landmark – which you can then blast to smithereens with a missile, sending their curled-up carcasses flying into the air.

This is a budget release, so it’s great value for money, but it’s also an ideal game for renting. You’ll see most of what it has to offer in a single week, but what there is of it is a lot of fun. After the insects come the giant spaceships, giant robots, attack walkers, and even more insects, all of them just waiting for you to choose the right method of destruction. You haven’t lived until you’ve fired a bazooka up into the guts of a kilometre-wide spaceship, bringing it down upon your head.

If Earth Defence Force 2017 has one downside, it’s that the achievements have clearly been bolted on at the last minute – the points are divided up in huge chunks for finishing all 50 of the game’s levels on each skill level.

I have to spare a word or two for the brilliantly-judged and hilarious voice work. Accompanying you on your bug-hunting adventures are your colleagues in the Earth Defence Force, a short-lived but loquacious bunch who always have a bon mot prepared, delivered in absolutely deadpan voices that utterly match the serious silliness of the game.

My favourite moment of the entire game – possibly of any game ever – came during a mission deep inside the alien insects’ burrows, when one of my companions called out, in deadly seriousness, in a tone as dry as Patrick Warburton after a week in the desert, something along the lines of: "We’re on a thrilling underground adventure."

Originally published in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #17.

Earth Defence Force 2017, Sandlot (dev.). Xbox 360, Japan.