Tag Archives: Xbox

The Flawed Genius Of Spec Ops: The Line

Thanks to the Xbox One’s backward compatibility feature, we are able to play the games we may have missed first time around. For me, Spec Ops: The Line is one of those titles. I had heard a lot about it despite never actually playing the game myself until recently. I finished the game and was left speechless while the end credits rolled…but the overall impression the game left on me was a very mixed bag for two very distinct reasons, one a gameplay issue, the other a story and design one.

Right here I’m going to look at why Spec Ops: The Line left me feeling both unsatisfied and utterly enthralled at the same time.

The Gameplay

Okay so the gameplay for Spec Ops: The Line left me very bored – so much so that I really don’t have that much to say about it. I was less than halfway through the game when I started to feel that fatigue set in and its not a very big game either, I’d say a fairly competent player could get through the whole thing in around five or six hours on normal difficulty. Its one of those cover/shooter games akin to Gears of War – you know the kind where you control a hero and a team of two other squad members.

Spec Ops Squad 1

Enter an area where a mass of enemies come at you all guns blazing and you and your team hide behind the nearest cover as you gun down the bad guys, move on and repeat throughout the entirety of the game. You have some very slight influence on your two teammates with basic ‘kill this guy’ orders and that’s about it for the whole game. Its a gameplay style and mechanic I just find all too dull rather soon. There are a few segments where they try to inject some variety with a scene where you hijack some tankers or split the team up a little, but overall, its a very ‘rinse and repeat’ experience that quickly grates.

Yet despite the lackluster and repetitive gameplay that bored me…something kept me playing until the end.

The Story And Design

So this is the part of Spec Ops: The Line that had me hooked even if during my first play-through I didn’t realize why at the time. Yes I did say “first play-through” about a game I felt was lacking in terms of gameplay as after I finished it, I instantly started a new game just so I could experience the story again.

At this point I’d just like to point out that I’m about to reveal major plot points and spoilers for this game. As I feel the story is something worth experiencing, I’d urge you to stop reading now and go play Spec Ops: The Line as not to ruin the best aspect of the game.

Spec Ops Action 1

Quick synopsis: You play as Captain Martin Walker on a recon mission in a post-catastrophe Dubai following a serious sandstorm that has cut off any surveillance, air travel, and most radio broadcasts. Walker is accompanied by his elite Delta Force team of First Lieutenant Alphanso Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. The trio come across a continually looping radio message from Colonel John Konrad stating “Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll…too many.” Colonel Konrad volunteered his 33rd Infantry Battalion to stay and offer relief to any civilians defying orders by the Army to abandon the city two weeks before most communication was cut off.

Walker has one simple mission, to confirm the presence of any survivors, then immediately radio for extraction. But when Walker and his team come across some refugees being rounded up by the 33rd, he defies his orders and sets out to learn what happened to his mentor Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Infantry Battalion led by shortwave radio communication from Colonel Konrad himself.

So I’ve not hit any major spoilers yet…but I will soon. From the synopsis, this sounds like a bog-standard military shooter and its this subterfuge that helps make playing the game so enjoyable. This is not just a ‘bog-standard military shooter’ at all, at least not from a storytelling perspective. Okay so in order to highlight why the story and design of Spec Ops: The Line is so damn good…I need to spoil the ending – so here it goes. Final warning for SPOILERS.

Spec Ops Squad 2

There are actually four different endings to the game, I’m not going to cover all four as I think part of the experience of the game is finding them yourself. But the four endings all rely on one simple fact that slowly builds through the game. The character you play as, Walker, is suffering from a form of PTSD and has been hallucinating throughout the course of the story – basically he’s batshit insane. Colonel Konrad is dead and has been for some time and all Walker has done is lead his team to their deaths.

Its the hallucination aspect that makes the game so great, some of it is so damn subtle you won’t even realize its happening and some of it is so in your face that you just brush it off as nonsense…until the ending is revealed. This is exactly why I instantly started a new game after finishing my first play-through as I wanted to (now knowing what was going on) pick up on all the little and not so little clues. You know how the movie Fight Club is much more fun watching a second, third or forth time because knowing the twist enables you to go back through and enjoy the clues? Well Spec Ops: The Line works the same way.

Spec Ops Squad 3

Writer of the game, Walt Williams pulled off an amazing piece of storytelling using the common standards of video games to fool the player into thinking they are making a difference. For instance, when you play a game like this – you tend to know right from the off that you are playing a hero, someone you the player can trust. In gaming tradition, you do as you are told, as the game directs you to do. You ‘trust’ what the game is telling you to do, you ‘trust’ the hero. Spec Ops: The Line breaks that tradition and has you playing as a delusional anti-hero you simply can not trust. And even better, you won’t realize any of this until you get to the end.

There are several moments in the game that stick into my mind for various reasons. Probably top of the list is the white phosphorus attack. While it was happening, I felt like a god as I rained down hellfire onto unsuspecting enemies. That scene is brilliantly designed as you can see the reflection of Walker’s face in the screen he is using while dozens and dozens of people die painful deaths due to your actions. But then the game does something that made me nauseous – it forces you to slowly walk through the aftermath of your destruction. Soldiers lie on the ground dead from the injuries they’ve sustained, some of them are still alive chocking to death on the smoke or stumbling/crawling asking for help before dying before your very eyes covered in severe burns. Its really quite disturbing to think that YOU caused all of this death and just when you think you’ve seen the worst…

Spec Ops WP

Its revealed that you killed soldiers trying to save civilians and even the civilians themselves including women and children. I’ve never done this with any game before – but after that scene, I had to stop playing for a while as the realization of what I just did washed over me. I needed a break. I went from god-like power to complete disgust in myself.

The white phosphorus attack is one of the biggest instances of how this game misleads and fools you into thinking you are a hero when you are really playing a psychopath. But there are much more subtle things that I didn’t notice until the end was revealed and I played through the game again. In the very first chapter of the game Colonel Konrad’s face appears on a billboard. At this point in the game, you the player have not seen his face before so don’t know who he is…but Walker the character you are playing has – yet he does not mention anything about why Konrad’s face would be on a billboard at all…because it shouldn’t be there and the image is in Walker’s mind. None of his team see it, only Walker and you the player. This is an indication that Walker is delusional right from the very start. Then later in the game and Konrad’s face appears on yet another billboard, this one is much bigger and harder to miss. But something really subtle occurs as you walk around a corner and the face changes into…I’ll let you discover that for yourselves.

There are loads of subtle hints to spot as you play – such as murals on walls of people with blacked-out eyes that are there during scenes where something horrific occurred – this is metaphorically being blind to the violence in front of them – kind of like you the player being blind to the death Walker causes. There is also a scene where you walk past a healthy and lush green tree…but turn around after you walk past and you’ll see the truth. One of my favorite subtleties is at the end of the game when Konrad is ‘talking’ but its Walker’s lips that are moving.

Spec Ops Action 2

Spec Ops: The Line forces you to ask yourself a valid question, “Do you enjoy this, are you having fun, is killing all these people really enjoyable?” Its something that plays on the mind and in writer Walt Williams’ own words…

“We wanted the player to be where Walker was and be angry at us, the people who made them do this. We hoped we would piss people off. We wanted people to be angry because we felt like that was a real emotional response.”

And he managed just that. I was pissed off playing this game, I did question why I was playing and if I was enjoying myself. The story and design of this is sublime, something that lingers at the back of your head, an itch you can’t reach and not sure if you really want to anyway.

There are so many other great subtle moments I’ve not yet covered like the fading to black or white depending on whether Walker is hallucinating or not. If it fades/cuts to black then its a perfectly normal transition – but if its white, then that’s an indication of Walker’s insanity and it is either an hallucination or Walker is outright lying.

And perhaps one of my favorite things that I didn’t even notice until the second play-through was the loading screens. You know how games tend to give you hints and tips during the loading screens? Well  Spec Ops: The Line does just that for the most part but when you get to the last chapter, after you have killed hundreds of innocent people – things change and the tips are replaced with other messages such as: “This is all your fault.”, Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.”, “You are still a good person.”, “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”, plus several others. But my favorite one is this…

Spec Ops Loading Screen

This is why I call Spec Ops: The Line ‘flawed genius’ as the gameplay itself is rather stale and can get old very fast – but is writing is top tier stuff. It made me question myself and why we gamers play overtly violent games like this. I don’t really want to play the game anymore due to its stagnant game mechanics but I can’t wait to play-though again for the third time to enjoy the story once more and hopefully spot some more of that genius writing and design as I’m convinced that there is more to Walt Williams’ amazing story that I’ve missed.

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Jaws Unleashed – PS2

Jaws U title

Little Bit of History: Developed by Appaloosa Interactive and published by Majesco Games (THQ in Europe) and released in 2006. A pseudo-sequel to the original 1975 film and was relased for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows.

Little Bit of Plot/Story: Amity Island is growing thanks to prestigious company: Environplus. But a growing population on Amity attracts a killer great white shark. Environplus CEO’s son is eaten by the killer shark and the CEO hires shark hunter Cruz Raddock to track and destroy the great white monster. Meanwhile, Marine Biologist Michael Brody tries to capture the shark for research.

Little Bit of Character: Michael Brody (son of Martin Brody from the original film) is joined by Amity’s Mayor; Vaughn and Cruz Raddock the shark hunter. Oh and a great white shark who is the star of the game.

Little Bit of Influence: The game was developed by the same team that made Sega Mega Drive classic Ecco The Dolphin and you can see a similar gameplay style here too. A sequel of sorts was relased called; Jaws: Ultimate Predator relased in 2011 for the Nintendo 3Ds and Wii. Plus there have been similar games relased on iOS and Android like; Hungry Shark Evolution and even an official; Jaws Revenge game too.

Little Bit of Memories: I remember this one being really good fun, mainly as you get to play as the shark. The game used an open world/sandbox style allowing you to explore the environment and kill swimmers, seas creatures and even destroy boats and scenery. The shark itself had quite a few moves it could pull off including; ramming, jumping out of the water and even whip its tail. It was a violent and bloody game…bloody good fun.

Little Bit of Playability: Yes, still playable today and I recommend the PC version if you can get it as it runs a lot smoother. It’s good mindless fun, causing mass destruction and eating swimmers while being a killer great white shark has never been so much fun.

Jaws U cover

This is just one part of my 40th birthday celebration of Jaws. Take a look at my overview of Jaws – NES as well as my look back on the first “summer blockbuster” and how Jaws almost never made it to the big screen.

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So…Shenmue III eh?

After years of waiting, years of trepidation, years of wanting…Shenmue III is finally happening.

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The second sequel to one of the most loved game series is coming, all thanks to a hugely successful kickstarter.
With a target of $2,000,000, the Shenmue III kickstarter not only hit it’s target but even surpassed it in only a few hours of being launched.
Currently sitting at $3,201,562 as I write this…and still climbing. This is living proof of how popular Shenmue really is.

But before we talk about Shenmue III, let’s have a quick refresher on what Shenmue was/is and catch up with the story so far…

Shenmue cover

Shenmue: Was the brainchild of Sega legend Yu Suzuki and the Sega AM2 development team. Released on the much loved Sega Dreamcast in 1999.
A martial arts inspired RPG with a (at the time) amazing world to explore and interact with along with some of the best character models seen.

Beginning in the winter of 1986 in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan. With you taking on the role of Ryo Hazuki, who returns home and witnesses his father, Iwao Hazuki, battling with a man known as Lan Di.
Lan Di orders Iwao to hand over the “Dragon Mirror” and when Iwao refuses. Ryo intervenes after his father is felled in combat, but Ryo ends up getting injured by Lan Di. Ryo is threatened with death which prompts Iwao to reveal the location of the “Dragon Mirror” underneath a nearby cherry blossom tree.

Lan Di’s henchmen recover the mirror and Di mentions a man called Zhao Sunming, who he says was killed by Iwao in Mengcun. Lan Di and Iwao Hazuki engage in combat. Iwao Hazuki is defeated and Lan Di allows Iwao to die “like a warrior”. Lan Di then finishes the fight with a fatal blow and leaves.
Iwao dies in Ryo’s arms shortly after, which fills Ryo with the desire for vengeance. After a few days of mourning and resting up from his injuries, Ryo begins his journey to track down Lan Di to avenge his father’s death.

Ryo’s first clue is a black car that some of his neighbors saw on the day of his father’s murder.
Though his leads are thin on the ground, Ryo slowly makes progress in his investigation by interviewing people all over Yokosuka…and asking for sailors. Just as he is about to run out of leads, Ryo discovers a letter from a man named Zhu Yuanda which suggests that he should seek the aid of a certain Master Chen, who works at the New Yokosuka Harbor.
Through Master Chen Yaowen and his son Chen Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local harbor gang known as the Mad Angels is connected to Lan Di’s crime organization, the Chi You Men. Ryo also learns that the “Dragon Mirror” stolen by Lan Di is part of a set of two stone mirrors. After further investigation, Ryo locates the second mirror underneath his father’s dojo, dubbed the “Phoenix Mirror”.

So Ryo takes on a job at the New Yokosuka Harbor in order to find out more about the Mad Angels gang, and eventually he causes enough trouble that the gang kidnaps his friend and love interest, Nozomi Harasaki. Ryo rescues Nozomi, but makes a deal with the Mad Angels leader, Terry Ryan, to beat up Guizhang in exchange to take Ryo to Lan Di.
Ryo fights Guizhang in a grueling battle, but after realizing Terry betrayed him by attempting to kill them, Ryo then teams up with Guizhang to defeat the seventy strong members of the Mad Angels gang.
Upon defeat, Terry reveals to Ryo that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong. With the aid of the Chen family, Ryo is arranged to take a boat to Hong Kong to track his father’s killer, Lan Di. On the day of his departure for Hong Kong, Ryo is suddenly attacked by Chai, a low ranking Chi You Men member who has been following Ryo throughout the game with the goal of acquiring the “Phoenix Mirror” to gain the favor of Lan Di. Chai injures Guizhang’s leg when Guizhang saves Ryo from getting crushed by a giant steel beam sent by Chai.
Ryo engages in a battle with Chai and bests him. Guizhang, who planned to accompany Ryo to Hong Kong, urges Ryo to go ahead without him so he could rest up and heal from his injury. Ryo is instructed by Master Chen to seek out the help of a master of the Chinese martial arts located in Wan Chai named Tao Lishao.
Ryo boards the boat alone and sails off to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lan Di, concluding the first chapter of Shenmue.

Shenmue II cover

Shenmue II: Made by the same team as the last game and relased in 2001 for the Sega Dreamcast and later ported to the Xbox.

Picking up from where Shenmue left off, Ryo arrives in Hong Kong and searches for Master Tao Lishao, as he was instructed to do by his friend, Master Chen Yaowen. After a long and difficult search, Ryo finally finds Master Tao Lishao, who as it turns out happens to be a woman named Hong Xiuying; but she is unwilling to assist Ryo in what she considers a futile quest for vengeance.
The two part ways, but Xiuying continues to watch Ryo’s progress and they continue to cross paths throughout the game. Ryo later discovers another individual, Ren Wuying, who may be able to assist him in locating Zhu Yuanda. Ren Wuying is the leader of a street gang named The Heavens. A young boy who holds Ren in high regard named Wong and an adventurous woman named Joy also befriend Ryo and assist him in his investigation.
Ren decides to assist Ryo in his quest after discovering that there are large sums of money tied up in the mysterious and ancient “Phoenix Mirror”. Ren also informs Ryo that Zhu Yuanda is hiding in Kowloon.

Ryo arrives in Kowloon and begins his quest to locate Zhu Yuanda, who is hiding there from Lan Di and the Chi You Men. Several confrontations ensue between Ryo and his allies and the dangerous Yellow Head organization, who are aiming to kidnap Zhu Yuanda on behalf of Lan Di.
Following several clues, Ryo and Ren finally find Zhu Yuanda; however, the meeting is cut short when they are ambushed by the Yellow Head leader, Dou Niu. Zhu is kidnapped but eventually Ryo discovers that Zhu Yuanda is being held at the Yellow Head Building. Ryo heads to the building to save him, along the way, Wong and Joy are captured.
Ryo saves Joy via a fight against a powerful martial artist named Baihu. Joy tells Ryo that Wong is taken to the 40th floor of the Yellow Head Building.
Ryo arrives at the rooftop of the building and discovers Lan Di hanging from the ladder of a helicopter. But before Ryo could attempt to engage with Lan Di, he discovers Dou Niu holding Wong hostage. Ryo saves Wong and engages with Dou Niu in a climactic battle with Lan Di looking on. Ryo eventually defeats Dou Niu and is able to prevent Lan Di from receiving a captured Zhu Yuanda, but Lan Di escapes.
Everyone gathers at Ren’s hideout, Zhu Yuanda reveals to Ryo that the reason Lan Di killed his father was that Lan Di believed Iwao killed his father, Zhao Sunming. It is also revealed that Lan Di’s real name is Zhao Longsun. Zhu also provides information regarding the true purpose of the “Dragon” and “Phoenix Mirrors”. The mirrors will lead to the resurrection of the Qing Dynasty.
Ryo is advised by Zhu to continue his search in Bailu Village, located in Guilin and that Lan Di is headed there as well. Ryo parts ways with Ren, Wong and Joy as he continues his journey to Guilin alone.

After shortly arriving in Guilin, Ryo encounters a young woman named Ling Shenhua. She previously appeared to Ryo through several dreams throughout the first game. As the two talk, Shenhua reveals her family is connected with the legacy of the “Dragon” and “Phoenix Mirrors”.
Shenhua leads Ryo to a quarry on the outskirts of the village to meet with her father, but he is nowhere to be found.
The game ends in a cliffhanger, with Ryo and Ling discovering a cryptic note and sword, which Ryo combines with the “Phoenix Mirror” and inadvertently sets off a device revealing a huge depiction of the two mirrors.

Shenmue III

Shenmue III: Is going to be directed by Yu Suzuki and said to pick up and resolve the cliffhanger from Shenmue II and finally finish the story the fans have been waiting 14 years to see.
Set to be relased on PC and Playstation 4 with an estimated release date of December 2017. (seems a bit “optimistic” if you ask me)

Shenmue III’s kickstarter is great news as Yu Suzuki is asking for feedback from the fans, so we could shape the way Shenmue III turns out.
Even though the target has been suppased, it’s still very much worth investing as there are still plenty of pledges available and the more money this kickstarter gains…the more can be spent on the game.

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“I’m Batman”, Part III

Welcome back Batfans to my retrospective on the Batman games I played.

As we leave Batman Forever behind, next up is Batman’s first foray into the open world/sandbox genre.

B&R

Batman & Robin: Developed by Probe Entertainment and published by Acclaim. Batman & Robin was unleashed on the Playstation in 1998 and based on the movie of the same name.

This time around you could control either Batman, Robin or even Batgirl and each character had their own abilities, gadgets and even their own vehicle. Batman with the Batmobile, Robin had the Redbird motorcycle while Batgirl favoured the Batblade.
Following the plot of the film with the trio of heroes having to take down Mr. Freeze (compete with endless freeze/cool puns) and Poison Ivy.
The game featured a semi-open world/sandbox style and even utilized Batman’s detective skills by having to use the Batcomputer to find clues. You’d even have to search around to find Riddler question marks…sound familiar? In many ways, this was the foundation for the Batman Arkham games we have today.

Game reviewers were not very kind to this title, just as film reviewers were not towards the film. But overall the game was just very “meh”.

B&R 2

Batman & Robin was a great idea, but poorly executed and maybe just slightly ahead of it’s time. The clunky controls and sluggish combat really slowed the game down and the awkward camera was a pain.
It was a game that was just too ambitious and the limitations of the hardware at the time could not deliver what the game was trying to do.
A good effort, but just not good enough.

Sticking with the Playstation for Batman’s next outing, this time he’s taken up racing.

Batman race

Batman: Gotham City Racer: This one was developed by Sinister Games (how apt) and published by Ubisoft. Based on the new (at the time) animated show: The New Batman Adventures and was released in 2001 of the Playstation.

There were quite a few of these kind of games poping around this time, where they took a franchise and turned it into a vehicle based game. 007 Racing (2000) was another one.
This one was a simple point to point kind of affair. With you controlling various Batman vehicles around Gotham trying to stop the villains of the Batman universe.
Some missions would be as simple as go to [insert location here] or follow [insert villain here] with very little variety or depth of gameplay.
You would control Batman, Robin or Batgirl…or at least their vehicles anyway, all while being guided by a big floating green arrow.

Batman race 2

This one was just bad. Dull, empty and lifeless environment and no real gameplay variety.

Now Nintendo get into the mix with a game from the Gamecube.

Batman darkT

Batman: Dark Tomorrow: Unleashed onto the public in 2003, developed by HotGen and published by Kemco. Released on the GameCube and Xbox.

This one really had a lot going for it.
Veteran DC Comics writer Scott Peterson as well as Final Fantasy’s Kenji Terada collaborating on the story for the game. Even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were hired to play the game’s dark and moody score. The game was wonderfully dark and atmospheric.

But none of that could hide the this games poor controls, terrible camera and repetitive gameplay.
This one received mostly negative reviews with many gamers calling this “the worst Batman game ever”. Really? Yeah it’s bad, but at least it’s not Batman Forever on the SNES.

Batman darkT 2

Really a shame about this game as it had a lot of potential. The graphics were really well done and detailed (for the time). The presentation was amazing with sublime cutscenes and great music. But the gameplay was horrible, dull uninspired missions, confusing navigation and sluggish controls just killed any hope this game had.

So far, the Batman games seem to be getting slowly worse. Bringing new ideas to the table, but just not pulling them off very well. Where to “begin” on the next one?

Batman begins

Batman Begins: Based on the film and released in 2005 for Game Boy Advance, GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Developed by Eurocom and published by EA Games. I’m going to be talking about the Xbox version here.

Christopher Nolan breathed new life into the Batman franchise when he made his film, but could the game version do the same for the game world?
Bringing back all the original cast from the movie (except Gary Oldman) to record all new dialogue and even using footage directly from the movie itself. Batman begins followed the film very closely, but also added plenty of features solely for the game.
One interesting feature was “intimidation” where Batman could use the environment and his gadgets to strike fear into opponents, which would weaken them up for combat. The game also relied heavily on stealth by allowing Batman to sneak and use shadows to his advantage.

Batman begins 2

This game brought a lot of new and great ideas along with it. The environments were impressive with plenty of details and interactions. The voice acting was top-notch and it really captured the film well.
But overall, it was very, very average. The game was ultimately very linear, the AI was embarrassing making a lot of Batman’s skills redundant and it just felt very patched together. A real shame as it could have been the game Batfans had been waiting for.

So what next for Batman?
Well we’ll find out in part IV, the final part of my Batman gaming retrospective where the games finally get good again.

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