I think it’s fair to say that, in the unlikely event of me being interviewed by Fox News, my appearance would probably be edited to put me in as negative light as possible. I don’t greatly understand the concept of patriotism, even for the countries I have called home. Seems like no-one is in a position to declare their country the best until they’ve had a chance to live in them all. And I don’t expect games like Battlefield 3 to be aimed at me.
It’s entirely possible that I have an automatic grudge against realistic war games along Battlefield‘s lines purely because of my wishy-washy liberal European sensibilities and distaste for the American military-industrial complex. That closing moment from Call of Duty: Black Ops where all the ships and planes pose together in the frame like Luke and Han at the end of the first Star Wars movie actually made me a little bit scared. It’s easy to forget how frightening it is that so much of gaming involves glorifying the murder of one’s fellow man. It’s an image outsiders to gaming tend to latch onto, and for good reason. It’s like the pudding called “Spotted Dick”. As an Englishman, I’ve gotten desensitized to the name, but it’d be difficult to explain to a foreigner why I expect him to consume my diseased penis.
But I digress. Am I not giving these games a fair assessment purely because of knee-jerk political disagreement? Well, there’s an easy way to figure this out: let’s pretend for a moment that the enemies in Battlefield 3 were all monsters from space. Like that Solomon dude had a Cthulhu mouth that went BLIBBLEBLIBBLEBLIBBLE whenever he tried to talk. This does nothing to improve the gameplay. It’s still another triple-A shooter that succumbs to what I’m starting to call “sightseeing tour syndrome” – where every slightest movement on the part of the player is rigidly predetermined in order to show off the spectacular set pieces. Where every now and again an attempt is made to break up the monotony by locking you into a vehicle or turret section which you are permitted to enjoy for an allotted fun period before being kicked out for the next predetermined point. I’d prefer a game to just set up its physics and let awesome set pieces occur naturally, but then I guess I’m not the one who has to cut together the teaser trailer.
So that’s gameplay. But come to think of it, even my problems with the story can’t fully be removed by replacing the terrorists with aliens and the American soldiers with, say, teddy bears. Because to create exactly the same context the teddy bears would have to vastly outnumber the tentacle-faced aliens and have several trillion teddy dollars behind their armed forces and military hug-technology. And the teddy bears would need to have had a history of backing the overthrow of South American democratic governments for the benefit of wealthy fruit corporations.
You see, it’s not just characters being American soldiers that stops me from engaging with their struggles. I liked Joseph Capelli from Resistance 3 and Alcatraz from Crysis 2. And that one bloke from Modern Warfare got real fucking sympathetic around the time he was crawling alone through irradiated wasteland. Why? Because at that point, they’re the underdogs. Dramatically the characters have to be in a lonely, desperate, losing position or it gets harder to sympathize. And I guess the problem I have with the story campaigns of modern military shooters is that when my characters are fully backed by an entity as massive as the American military, conveniently equipped at every necessary moment with the highest-tech vehicles and weaponry available, then I cannot buy for a second that the goodies have any claim to underdog status. Nathan Drake’s an underdog. He still pisses me off, but for unrelated reasons.
It’s hard to feel alone and underequipped when my character can pull a targeting computer out of his arse and direct a bunch of laser-guided missiles into a group of entrenched foreigners. And then there’s that sequence that seems to be a prerequisite for every modern warfare game now where you’re in a bomber supporting infantry units by firing ludicrously big shells at ground targets who have absolutely no possibility of hitting you. Watching blips on your radar representing someone’s son or husband disappear with a plop as someone in your earpiece congratulates you and laughingly points out the remaining ones who are running for their lives. I mean, fucking hell. Once you discount the possibility that this is supposed to be dramatic or challenging then we are left with the conclusion that this only exists for the masturbatory power fantasy. It just creeps me out is all.
Anyway, let’s turn our attention to cheerier matters, ‘cos I want to finish off with a quick review of an indie game I’ve spent a surprising amount of time on lately, and that’s The Binding of Isaac on Steam. From one extreme to another, because you can’t get more underdog than the player characters in this game. It’s also one of those premises that just makes me laugh on its own. You are an infant locked in a basement by your insane mother, and you must defeat all your hideously malformed brothers and sisters by firing your tears at them. Well, I think it’s funny.
Binding of Isaac plays like a cross between the dungeons from the original Legend of Zelda, Smash TV, and Splatterhouse, all depicted in that rather idiosyncratic Newgrounds art style previously seen in Castle Crashers and Super Meat Boy. On the surface, it’s a pretty short game: you cry your way through 6-8 levels and that’s the end, but it’s unforgiving with it. There are no saves and the rooms become quite murderously difficult quite fast. It also completely randomly generates each level, as well as all the upgrades, items and bosses, which gives it a surprisingly addictive quality. One touch I particularly like is that with each upgrade various permanent additions and mutations are added to your character sprite until you’re just as monstrous as the things you fight. Very Nietzsche.
I’d say it’s got some balance issues. I’ve only managed to complete it twice and on both occasions it was down to acquiring random upgrades that were just completely overpowered. There’s one that lets you fire unlimited lasers in any direction that instakills virtually everything and it’s like removing the baddies from the screen with a windscreen wiper. Still, it’s not a deal breaker.
You know, give me a chance to take this back after the year’s Christmas release schedule has dried up, but sometimes I seriously consider putting my money where my mouth is, retiring from reviewing triple-A big-commerce games altogether and concentrating entirely on indie releases, because that seems to be the only avenue where anything interesting happens. I have a strong suspicion that major releases are only going to head further down the road of sightseeing tours. But imagine what the developers of The Binding Of Isaac might come up with if someone took a risk and gave them creative control, funding and a team to make something on a cutting edge level. You probably wouldn’t even get through the opening scroll without throwing up.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.