Jay-Z, talking to Joe Rogan once complained that music reviewers didn’t spend enough time with albums before publishing. “You can’t review an album in a day,” was basically his point and though I gave little thought to it at the time, I’m beginning to come around.
The problem is exacerbated in the games industry, where the mad rush to be first on Metacritic leads to reviewers skipping side-quests, ignoring cutscenes, and often enough to note, not actually completing the games they’re paid to review.
This is to say nothing of the long established trope of video game reviews; namely that every triple-A release is rated on a 7-9 scale rather than 1-10.
My solution has always been to simplify things. Lose the absurdity of scoring a game out of 100%. What is the qualitative difference between a game rated 97% and one rated 98% anyway? Go beyond even the relative ease of 1-10 as well, particularly if you’re not going to use the majority of provided numbers. Lets talk about stars out of five. It’s served the movie industry well enough for decades.
A 1-5 score makes everything better. Piss off with your half stars too because that’s cheating. It’s extraordinarily simple, encourages (ironically enough) more range in reviews, and when faced with five games all rated 3/5, one might be tempted to look beyond the number at the end of a review, and actually read the preceding thousand words. They’re supposed to be the important bit anyway.
- Bad, but not without merit.
- Quite good.
For game publishers, this increases the likelihood their game will actually get a ‘perfect’ score. For reviewers, it encourages more thought because 7-9 out of 10 is basically covered by 4/5 and you can’t rate everything 4 or 5 unless you work for Empire magazine. For readers, it’s an obviously more palatable serving.
I’m, to my friends at least, infamous for being miserly with ratings. Almost every Marvel film is a 2 or a 3. They’re adequate for the most part. By the numbers box ticking competent. Baby Driver is a 2. So is Shape of Water. To find a film I actually gave 5 stars to, you have to go back to 2015 when I fell in love in Ex Machina.
You’re of course free to disagree with these reviews. They’re all subjective and if you think Edgar Wright is the best thing to happen to film since Stanley Kubrick picked up a camera that’s fine. My point here is that I don’t give good reviews out like I work for IGN, so when I tell you I was happy to give God of War 4/5 upon completing it a few weeks ago, you understand that I thought it was excellent.
My opinion has since improved. Like Ex Machina, God of War has stuck with me for weeks now. I’ve rewatched cutscenes, enjoyed fan tattoos and artwork, contemplated where the series and its characters might go next, and, always nice as the result of a game, read more on the source material. I’ve started a new playthrough to appreciate the foreshadowing of the game’s big reveals, had Dad and Boy pose for the camera in photo mode. For a largely linear single player game the like of which EA incredulously told us gamers were no longer interested in, God of War hasn’t let go of me yet.
And so I find myself considering it as a 5 star game. It’s not perfect. Though the level design is admirably clever, the world occasionally feels somewhat cramped. There’s not enough variety in the bosses you encounter. Some of the puzzles slow the game down too much even when you know what you’re doing. The fast travel isn’t great. But there’s so much right with it. It’s a wonderful story of a father and son that for the most part uses Norse mythology only as a backdrop, with promise of much more to come. It looks fantastic and like Uncharted 4 before it, shows that the processing power of your system isn’t the most important thing if you have a talented developer who knows how to use it. Christopher Judge is inch perfect as Kratos, both a war god and a man trying to be better. Sunny Suljic bucks the trend of child actors and is annoying only when he’s supposed to be, spot on as a boy learning not only of the world and his father, but also himself. The combat is meaty and satisfying, calling your axe back from the chest of a vanquished foe never gets old, and almost all the central game mechanics just work really well. That shouldn’t be noteworthy, but alas it is.
At first there was no question to me that God of War was at the least a strong 4/5. I considered 5/5, but backed off because the few niggles I had with it were sticking in my mind. A 5 star game needn’t be perfect. Metal Gear Solid 3 has appalling casting for its largely Russian cast, Mass Effect 2 though superior in most ways has less depth of gameplay than its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto 5 has interminable waits for online lobbies. But they’re all 5 star games because on the whole, they’re exceptionally good. So is God of War.
With Ubisoft convinced that everything need be an open world, EA and Activision ready to ride ‘Games as a Service’ into the apocalypse, and Microsoft doing basically nothing to advance the gaming experience, you have to give credit to Sony and Santa Monica Studio for piling resources into a true blockbuster single player game, and be pleased when they reap the rewards. Naughty Dog did it with Uncharted and Last of Us, Guerilla took a huge gamble and did it with Horizon Zero Dawn. Now it’s SMS’s time.
I get joyous when I tell people about God of War. I’ve readily beamed when sharing the story with non-gamer friends who nonetheless “ooh” and “ah” with sufficient glee when particular story points are brought up. I’ve enjoyed fan trailers cut from captured footage and images taken in game. All of this adds to my enjoyment of it. All of it contributes to a higher score than I originally gave it.
Games journalism, such as it is, is a business like any other and the primary goal is to make money. To that end a quick review is better than a considered one. There are certain reviewers out there though, that I’m prepared to wait a month after launch to hear their opinions, because I know they’ll be complete experiences rather than a run down of the first eight hours, or the results of a hurried run-through at a review event monitored by the publisher.
Beyond that, maybe everyone could benefit from waiting a week or two after completing a game to give their reviews the finishing touch. With most games it may not affect the score at all, but some stick with you longer than others. They carve out places in your heart that you may not be aware of in the heat of the moment. It’s only on reflection that you truly realise you’ve become a fan.
Like most European gamers I cared little for the shouty hack n’ slash arcade beat ’em ups that were Kratos’ Greek adventures. Cory Barlog and his team have dragged me on board with a gutsy reimagining that so easily could have been rejected by a community that’s always ready to pounce when it doesn’t get its way. It worked out. It was a success. On reflection, it was a five star achievement, and I’m only just getting that now, weeks after I completed it for the first time.
It’s almost tempting to feel sorry for Microsoft. Kicking off their E3 press conference with a focus on games rather than apps, gizmos or other assorted crap was a clear indicator that they’d learnt the lessons of the past year; foremost among which was that Sony’s “For The Players” campaign had comprehensively kicked the shit out of, “turn it on with your voice” as far as marketing went.
If you are tempted to go in this direction however and pity a billion-dollar empire, remember how much Microsoft hated retailers and gamers last year. Always on, DRM protection, no reselling, et cetera. It’s only because gamers responded so vehemently and critically to the corporation’s actions that Phil Spencer opened up this year’s conference about gamers ‘shaping the future of XBOX’ – 12 months ago Microsoft seemed to have forgotten that without gamers, the XBOX is a useless gimmick of technology and will have no future if they don’t stick with. So here’s a conference for the gamers, then. Excellent. What’s up first?
Call of Duty: The New One. Whoop-de-fucking-do.
Now to be fair to COD, this does look like a visually impressive FPS but the day COD stops looking pretty, half the point of purchase is gone. Kevin Spacey showing up as the bad guy or not, no one in the world is going to buy this game for its story. The futuristic setting is nice though; there actually seem to be a handful of new gameplay mechanics and the multiplayer will almost certainly be addictive, if you’re the kind of person that finds playing the same game on the same level in the same way over and over again addictive. A multiplayer, in other words. The most important thing about Microsoft kicking off with COD though? It’s not an exclusive. You’ll be able to play it on PlayStation as well. Yes, some DLC will come out first on XBOX, but who over the mental age of fifteen really gives a shit about putting a map purchase off for next month’s paycheck? A poor start.
Next up is Forza… err, 5? Yes, second billing in Microsoft’s press conference goes to a game that came out last year. Why is such a prestigious spot given to an eight-month old game? You can now download a new track for it as DLC. It’s free. Yay.
Forza: The Real New One is up next however, and it’s got… cars and shit in it. Cue a notably muted reaction from the crowd. 1080p and 60fps we were told! Or put another way, exactly what everyone should fucking be providing on next-gen, all the fucking time. At least it’s an exclusive though, making this the first time today Microsoft have given you a real reason to pick an XBOX over a PS4. Assuming you like racing games, that is, and think a shameless Gran Turismo clone will be better than the next Gran Turismo. You might.
Flying in hot on its heels is a quick ad for Evolve which makes some half-witted claim about the next evolution in gameplay being a First Person Shooter where you kill monsters. Or you can be the monster, which has certainly never happened in games ever before. This will also be evolving on PS4.
Interestingly if you’re not a complete fucking philistine, Assassin’s Creed Not V: Unity is up next. ACNotV is set in revolutionary France, features campaign co-op play for you and up to three other people who won’t read the codex entries and looks very good fun, as always. No mention of how the present day story will progress, as always, and interesting to note that since this isn’t being given a number, Ubisoft themselves may not consider it that much of a groundbreaking sequel. Certainly that’s why Black Flag was bumped up to the all important ACIV name, rather than remaining a Brotherhood-esque ‘lesser’ sequel. Available on PS4. At this stage, you have to wonder whether Sony will really need more than ten minutes at the end of the day, because Microsoft are advertising for both at the moment.
Microsoft next push forward EA and Bioware’s Dragon Age Not III: Spanish Inquisition which is an XBOX exclusive. Nah, just fucking with you. Of course it’s not. Much has been made by others of the progress Bioware have made with the Frostbite 3 engine and maybe I’m just less excited about the incremental step forward graphics seem to have taken with this console generation, but I’m not so impressed. It looks okay. Okay that is, if it’s running on an XBOX 360. There is absolutely nothing that screams next-gen about this game. Dragon Age is about the story more than the graphics though; we all know this.
But then there’s fuck all about the story other than what might be Leliana with a knife to her throat at the end. It’s actually a strikingly unimpressive, unevenly-paced and badly cut trailer. A big disappointment, though we can presumably expect more later on when EA take centre stage.
It’s in stark contrast to what follows. Insomniac Games foul-mouthed, pisstaking trailer for Sunset Overdrive. Playing like a mad cross between Saints Row IV and Jet Set Radio, it’s the first genuinely interesting and NEW idea we’ve seen thus far. It remains to be seen whether the gameplay’s frenetic style will get mundane and repetitive, but for now the game looks very impressive. And EXCLUSIVE!
And it’s followed up by MOAR EXCLUSIVE! It’s DLC, right enough, but what DLC. The fresh-natured and brightly coloured, slightly madcap fun we were just shown in Sunset Overdrive already seems as boring as guessing whether or not HALO will be mentioned in the next half hour. Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix (this is actually what it’s called) Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha looks like brilliantly good fun combining the repetitive boredom of Dead Rising 3 with the balls-to-the-wall mentalism of Capcom employees who found some decent coke from the 80s revisited Street Fighter whilst high. Want to kill Zombies with your mates as Ryu and Chung Li? Of course you fucking do. This is the stand-out moment so far and finally provokes some real enthusiasm from the crowd.
Fable McChicken Legends is introduced next. It looks pretty enough in that comicy Fable way, and deserves kudos for arguably being only the fifth game of all time to feature a Scottish accent that sounds like it might actually belong to someone from Scotland, but there seems little of particular interest here until ‘villain mode’ is mentioned, where you effectively play the game as a Tower Defence clone while people actually playing Fable (and presumably having more fun) try and get through your traps. I’ve always been fond of Fable’s experimentation though, and forgiven it a lot of faults so maybe it won’t be quite as dull as Microsoft have made it seem today.
Continuing the brightly coloured cartoon visuals next is a very attractive side-scrolling platformer exclusive to XBOX, Ori and the Blind Forest. It really does look lovely.
HALO music is next. Lots of people get excited. Those of us excited by minor concerns such as character and plot do not. First up is the Masturbator Collection which includes Halos, 1, 2, 3 and 4, presumably remastered. Maybe not. Since Halo 2’s anniversary is coming up, Halo 2 is being re-released individually as well, and it is being remastered. The focus is naturally on the multiplayer (despite Halo 2’s campaign being one of the most interesting of the lot), so I went for a piss and came back when they were talking about HALO Nightfall which could actually be fun. HALO has a decent story at heart; it’s always fun when they decide to actually tell some of it rather than funnel you down a corridor to shoot some more neon gremlins.
A look at (Intel?) Inside from the creators of Limbo is next and it looks every bit as atmospheric as its precursor. Available on XBOX and PlayStation. It’s followed by a longer than usual VT on indie games, but on this subject it’s impossible not to think of Microsoft playing catchup to Sony who have gone out of their way to make life easier for indie developers.
A big video next as Not Tomb Raider II is premiered. Lara’s having therapy and still shooting people with arrows. There’s very little on detail here, but the revamp of the franchise was fun enough last time round and there’s reason to hope for the same next ‘Holiday’ which I think is Americans bullshit way of saying Christmas.
In any case, The Witcher Wild III Hunt is up next and looks to be a perfectly capable Elder Scrolls clone. That’s slightly harsh, as the combat and cut-scenes are much improved over Skyrim and its forebears, the voice-acting seems competent and the graphics attractive enough.
Killer Instinct – a game that really doesn’t seem that old to me, but evidently no one under the age of 25 had ever heard of until last year gets a namecheck next, and there’s more nostalgia to follows as Phantom Dust is announced via a trailer that looks like a post-apocalyptic gay nightclub opening, fireworks, fag hags and all.
Tom Clancy’s Non-Exclusive The Division is up next and this looked impressive last year and continues today. Despite some new ideas such as levitating torches that blind your enemies as you shoot them, this is standard cover-based shooting, but does look considerably more interesting than the legion of COD clones you’ll see over the next few years.
Next up is Something From Platinum Games (or ‘Scalebound’ if you prefer) and it looks to be typical hack n’ slash shit of the sort that’s kept the ex-Capcom employees in the black for the last few years. Expect good reviews, particularly from XBOX only mags which will get hard simply because it’s exclusive, and repetitive, over-in-five-hours, gameplay.
Crackdown makes a welcome appearance at the end and with levels of mad that seem to be trying to out-Saint, Saints Row IV, which is only fair since SRIV tried to out-Crack Crackdown.
Finally a montage of what’s coming out in future. The finale? It’s more fun on XBOX ONE. No mention of Kinect which seems odd when you consider that it really is the one area Microsoft are ahead of Sony by a big margin. Co-op is obviously the buzzword of the year. And the 360 is dead. This is despite the fact that a number of the above mentioned games will be released on the console; Microsoft never mentioned it once.
Before discussing the failure’s of the year’s big web series, it’s worth going back to where it began. In 2010 Kevin Tancharoen’s short film, Mortal Kombat Rebirth, created for $7,500 as a pitch to Warner Brothers hoping to get the greenlight to start work on a full length feature, was excellent. Featuring a surprisingly good cast for a web series, fronted by Star Trek Voyager’s Jeri Ryan and The Dark Knight’s Michael Jai White, and dragging the mythological based series into the real world, it served as a reworking that in ten minutes, was better than either of the two silver screen Mortal Kombat movies that had preceded it.
Warner Brothers weren’t sold enough to allow Tancharoen to begin work on a third big screen outing for the franchise, but they did stump up some cash for a web series, and the resulting Mortal Kombat Legacy released the next year remains one of the most impressive web shows you can see. Adding Battlestar Galactica’s Tamoh Penikett to the cast, featuring impressive fight sequences and a range of different styles suited to the characters portrayed, the project wasn’t perfect, but was very impressive.
Using each episode (or at times, two) to tell an origin story for different characters allowed Tancharoen to experiment with different storytelling techniques, and use the ten-minute constraints of webisodes wisely. Sub Zero and Scorpion’s family rift is shown to have started in feudal Japan and their film is reminiscent of countless Samurai stories. Movie star Johnny Cage was treated to an E!-like celeb gossip intro, Jax and Sonya Blade have an action shoot out with criminal Kano, the more fantastical story of Kitana and Mileena is told in part by a Ghibli-esque anime, and Thunder God Raiden is treated to an excellent short where he is trapped in a psychiatric institute. Not all aspects worked and some were divisive, but there was something for every fan of the series.
The success of the show prompted Warner Brothers to trust Tancharoen with a second series and a 2015 feature film. Talking of the former, Tancharoen promised a more linear plot revolving around the tournament itself and the typical ‘more of the same but better’ aspirations.
Admittedly the reaction I’ve seen from others has been positive, but there are countless problems with Legacy’s second run that are all too easy to point out. Mostly, we’re dealing with a new cast and mostly, they’re as wooden as a log cabin. Despite some nice ideas (for the first time in history, Liu Kang is almost interesting), the dialogue is clunky and the script cries out for an editor.
Take this sequence as an example. In episode 3 we’re shown the backstory for newcomer Kenshi, for who it seems Daniel Southworth has based his performance on a sneering Steven Seagal. It’s not a bad short, leading up to a fight that sounds like it has promise in episode 4. Come episode 4 though, we don’t see it; instead the screen goes black, some heavy chords hit and we’re left to assume that he won, but was blinded in the process. Not to worry though, because later in the episode the characters face off again, and this time we’re treated to some acceptable martial arts and hammy effects. Done.
Then we get to episode 5, which is ostensibly about two pieces of Ikea furniture having a row (or to put it another way, Kitana and Mileena), which is composed of flashbacks to their original episodes from the first season, and then? They stand and watch Kenshi’s fight, with Johnny Cage (Casper Van Dien phoning it in as the most pathetic incarnation of the character you’ve ever imagined). We’re treated to some vaguely different angles of the same so-so fight and the same angles of the same hammy effects.
The production values vary wildly. Sweeping shots of Macau and landscapes constrast oddly with Mileena’s appalling facial make-up and Sub Zero’s motorcross mouthguard. Varied and attractive filming locations in Earthrealm go up against a field and a beach for Outworld.
The pacing is nonsensical, with three episodes giving time to the story of one fight, and others serving as naught more than reminders of what’s happened previously.
Despite the promise to focus on the tournament this time around, there are countless flashbacks (not in themselves, bad things), and the ‘tournament’ itself boils down to a campfire on the beach and three fights which occur as the result of aimless walks around the same dour landscape.
The brilliant origin episode in season one which introduced us to Raiden is forgotten, and now the character (played again, by an inferior actor) serves only as the protagonists’ expositionist, except he doesn’t explain anything of note because he’s onscreen for less time than it takes the opening titles to roll.
Tancharoen’s script is littered with immature drops of clumsily-delivered F-bombs that do nothing but suggest a teenager was working on the script, he serves up the wrong fatality to one character, appears to have completely ditched any pretence of realism as seen in the first series, there’s no mention of favourites such as Jax, Blade or Kano who anchored its success, let alone appearances, and after ten episodes which, objectively speaking tell no real stories beyond those of Kung Lao, Liu Kang and Kenshi (the rest is filler and repetition) the tournament we were promised has barely begun.
It’s not all bad. It’s a lot of fun to see one positive piece of recasting and welcome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa back as Shang Tsung after 18 years. That’s about it though. There’s none of the inventiveness we saw two years ago, absolutely no risk-taking (unless you count letting the work experience kid write the banter), a lack of wow! moments, a failure to agree a purpose for the season and so tell either a collection of stories or one cohesive one, a dropping of the varied filmography that worked so well first time around… The whole thing feels like lazy, directionless, fan-film filler till the movie comes out.
None of this would really be an issue if it were the first we were seeing of Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat work, but we know he can do better. Legacy II’s greatest crime isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s disappointing, because after two years and with a solid base it should have been very, very good.
Yeah, I said women. Not girls, chicks or babes. Women. Why? Because sure, while the girls of Dead or Alive have very nice boobs that bounce up and down while they’re kicking people in the face, as characters they’re non-events. Lets talk about the women of video games. And to show how concerned I am with character here, let’s start with,
Okay, so the ‘character’ of Chun-Li is about as irrelevant as Grover Norquist’s opinion on Mirror’s Edge, but bear with me. Street Fighter II is often rightly held up as the granddaddy of modern beat ‘em ups. Following on from a forgettable debut, 1991 saw the gaming world introduced to menly men such as Ryu, Blanka, E. Honda and Guile. Also a girl. Boasting the most iconic blue dress this side of Monica Lewinsky and a pair of legs that could put Angela Rippon to shame, in 1991 Chun-Li began her career as one of the most recognisable women in games and though subsequent games in the series expanded the female roster, even today it’s Chun-Li and her lightning kicks that people recognise. It’s unclear how much this is due to an actress playing her in the movie as opposed to Kylie Minogue who was cast as Cammy but since they ditched the blue dress in that anyway, who cares? Her name means ‘beautiful spring’ in Mandarin and she’s certainly lived up to it becoming one of the most iconic female ass-kickers out there.
By 1996 girls in games weren’t all that odd and whilst the original Resident Evil remains noteworthy largely for god-awful voice acting and dialogue worthy of the worst Japanese B-movies, it did kick-start the biggest zombie franchise of them all. It also gave us Jill Valentine. Though not as strong as the game’s male protagonist, S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics And Rescue Squad) cop Valentine was more resourceful and could carry more ammunition and supplies than her teammate despite the visual absence of a handbag. Jump forward to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis where the zombie menace has charged across the entire city and Jill (with a face now modelled on model Julia Voth) not only manages to take down the game’s titular villain, zombie dogs, spiders and yet more cheesy dialogue but manages to do it all wearing nothing but a miniskirt, strapless top and knee-highs. Truly someone to emulate.
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
It was of course inconceivable with a list such as this that the first lady of video games would go without mention. Unashamedly a sexier version of Indiana Jones, she’s been featured in games, books, TV adverts, men’s magazines, comics, an animated series, portrayed onscreen by an Oscar winner, the Guinness Book of Records named her ‘Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine’ six years ago and it’s easy to see why. 1996’s Tomb Raider was at the forefront of the 3D revolution for games. Platforming wasn’t just about scrolling screens and collecting coins anymore but exploring vast environments, killing endangered species and manipulating the camera to get a better view of the protagonist’s chest. Croft is arguably the most recognisable video game character in the world which isn’t bad considering Signor Mario has appeared in 200+ games and Sonic has been around for over two decades now.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
Women weren’t a big feature in games back in the 80s and when they did show up, commonly accepted practice was that they get captured, sit patiently and wait prettily in 8-bit for a man to show up and save them. Not so in Metroid. The game’s hero, Samus Aran spent most of her time onscreen dressed like a tougher version of Halo’s favourite avatar and had the guns and guts to back up the look. Ex army and now one of the galaxy’s toughest bounty hunters, it was Aran who first began to show gamers that women could do more than get kidnapped by giant apes and wait for a passing plumber to come along. Aran’s looks were based on Kim Basinger though players of the original game didn’t know it until the end – even the instruction manual referred to the asexually named character as male to hide the surprise for gamers.
The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
The Boss isn’t the most attractive character on this list; she isn’t even the most attractive character in this game. What she is, is undoubtedly the female character with the best story in video games. In her 40s at the time of the game (a rarity in itself) her military career includes operating as part of a special forces unit during the battle of Normandy whilst pregnant, eventually giving birth on the field of battle and being part of the US’s first manned test flight into space (although… she crashed, but we’ll avoid the temptation for a joke about women drivers). The Boss’ heroic history however, comes secondary to the role she plays in MGS3 where her relationship with the protagonist falls hazily between mimicking that of a mother and a lover. It’s impossible to state precisely why this character warrants her place at the top of the list to those who haven’t played the game but suffice it to say her final sacrifice gives birth to perhaps the most emotional end to any video game ever and her influence is felt throughout the series. It’s not that The Boss was the coolest or best looking, but she was undoubtedly a more rounded and intriguing character than any of the others on this list. She wasn’t included as a woman for kicks, her backstory wasn’t drummed up to fill a gap nor was she merely an attractive avatar; her very character, her honour, loyalty and love is integral to the entire series affecting characters fifty years after her death and even now that’s a rarity in any video game character, let alone amongst women. Ezio and Master Chief take note. You can have a successful game that relies as much upon characterisation as it does your graphics engine.