12 10 / 2014

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I think the minimalist and ambiguous presentation of Dark Souls’ story was key to how it became so widely praised. There’s not much I can add to the debate that hasn’t already been said, but I did come up with this little hypothesis.

Most RPGs start off with a cutscene that starts to set up the world. Dark Souls is no different. However, From Software went to great lengths to subvert traditional interactive storytelling, and I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have tried to do something interesting with the first piece of story you see in the game.

For me, the intro set up a fairly straightforward dark fantasy universe with just a pinch of Japanese strangeness. Very few games give you reason to question what a cutscene tells you. Yet within an hour of playing Dark Souls, I realised the opening video raised more questions than it answered.

Lordran is a kingdom with a history that goes beyond the events directly witnessed in the game. If we assume that the player character is just an average Joe who wound up locked away in the asylum, then they should have a certain understanding of Lordran’s past, even if that understanding is based off conjecture. Yet we, as the player, start with no knowledge of the game’s universe beyond what little the box art might tell us.

My theory is thus: the opening cinematic presents Lordran’s backstory as a common citizen would understand it, giving the player the knowledge needed to properly take the form of their given avatar. Thus armed, the confusion and paranoia we feel when the cutscene’s claims start to unravel as we explore the world are consistent with the character on the screen. For example,The Lords are depicted in the intro as powerful and just, and I took its word, only to later find the city of the gods abandoned and the kingdom ruled only via an illusion of power.

Perhaps this is giving the developers too much credit, but judging from my experience with Dark Souls, I’d be surprised if their mind games weren’t underway from the very start.

"The greatest tool for narrative is the world you create for it to exist in. A well-designed world could tell its story in silence."

- Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls director

03 10 / 2014

If the horror stories are to be believed, Dark Souls is a punishing game that only those with infinite patience will ever see the end of. As with so many legends, there’s a grain of truth to these claims that’s been exaggerated out of proportion: yes, Dark Souls is a merciless beast whose demanding nature will put off a lot of people. But is it insurmountable for the average gaming enthusiast? I’d argue no.

After a cryptic intro that raises more questions than it answers, Dark Souls places you in a prison cell armed with only a broken sword. On top of that, your character died before you even had a say in their life. All this sets the tone for an adventure that pulls no punches, and by the time you find a decent weapon you’ll have already run into some lethal creatures. But there’s nothing inherently unreasonable about the opening segment of gameplay; you’re told what buttons do what, then given a weapon and left to figure out the most efficient means of killing stuff with it. The result is a game that trains you to approach new areas with caution, never underestimate an opponent, and always have an escape route if things go tits-up. It’s an intriguing hybrid of old and new game design, sans most of the cryptic bollocks your nostalgia doesn’t let you remember.

The combat is the dominant gameplay feature, of course, and I don’t hesitate to call it some of the best I’ve seen: a dagger feels completely different from a giant hammer, and neither can be called definitively better than the other. Dodging attacks and getting backstabs is a legitimate tactic, but so is tanking damage and punching through blocks with heavy weapons, not to mention the abundance of magical options I was too scared to try for a long time. It’s a strategic experience that something like Skyrim can barely dream of unless modded up the wazoo.

Speaking of strategy, Dark Souls is one of precious few games that actually give meaningful penalties for death. Every time you die, you lose your accumulated points and have precisely one chance to retrieve them. If you cock that up, the points are gone forever. It’s harsh, to be sure, but checkpoints are never obscenely far apart and I learned early on that if you know your downfall is imminent, you might as well try and die in a spot that can be reached easily. It’s just another system to use to your advantage and will only screw you over if you push your luck: know when to retreat and spend your points, rather than lose them deep in enemy territory. That the entire world respawns when you use a checkpoint is bizarre at first, yet makes a lot of sense to me: sitting at a bonfire becomes a tactical decision, since it provides safety at the cost of undoing your progress elsewhere. And as crushing as it is to lose your hard-earned points, those moments are also the best times to try throw yourself at a boss or speed through a tough area to grab items.

Navigating the metroidvania landscape is the other great art of Dark Souls. Locales are varied (along with their inhabitants) and frequently bigger than they first appear, overflowing with hidden loot, shortcuts and even optional bosses. Backtracking does become a nuisance beyond a certain point, and the teleport option is hard-earned, but the only places I truly dislike are the handful suffering from framerate dips and finicky platform segments. Other than that, I find the game’s setup enjoyable, not least due to its role in one of Dark Souls’ most surprising triumphs: storytelling.

There’s a wealth of lore to be found in subtle background details and item descriptions, and it really felt like I was piecing together the world’s history from the clues left behind. The slow realisation of just how boned the land is fits perfectly with the sense of dread pervading the gameplay, and even your character’s ability to rise after death is contextually justified. For a game that could’ve relied solely on its combat, I find it doubly impressive that Dark Souls manages to have a memorable world, and with a minimalistic style that’s refreshing in an industry whose attempts at storytelling often rely on overwritten cutscenes.

Another remarkable aspect of Dark Souls is the online integration: players can leave messages that randomly pop up in people’s worlds. Some are helpful, some are amusing, and some are outright lies. Then you have a clunky but workable co-op mechanic, along with the danger of being invaded by other guys whenever you de-zombify yourself. The whole arrangement is hard to compare to anything else, and has created a pretty unique sense of community while also reminding you that nobody can be trusted.

At its core, Dark Souls represents a raw yet fair challenge where death is almost never anyone’s fault but the player’s. And while your initial perception may be one of cruel chaos, dig deep enough and you’ll find a sense of order. By almost any measure, I think Dark Souls must be called an impressive piece of work. The only question is whether you’ll enjoy an action game which requires you to be methodical and treat every fight like a matter of life and death. Unlike some parts of the fanbase, I understand that it’s possible to not like something for reasons other than sucking at it.

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Dark Souls podcast

Dark Souls permadeath let’s play

(Image source)

19 9 / 2014

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So I found a bandit camp. As a low-level character using the notoriously harsh Requiem mod, I was sceptical about my chances of taking on half a dozen dudes. That’s when I noticed a pair of trolls stomping around over a nearby hill.

Needless to say, I got the trolls’ attention and shepherded them into the bandits before fleeing the scene to cackle from a safe distance. The outlaws had no real chance, but caught a lucky break when one of the beasts fell down a spike pit and had to go through the dungeon to reach the surface. The real fun started when a bear joined the fray, turning the battle into a three-way skirmish.

Ultimately the trolls mauled everybody else and claimed the camp as their own. This is when I realised that a base patrolled by trolls (ha) is a much bigger problem than one full of bandits. Still, I got one of the buggers to chase me then circled back when he lost interest, and was all ready to repeat the trick with his friend when I saw the remaining troll chasing a fox away from the camp and into the distance. And it turned out the battle had actually involved four parties, because I found a Stormcloak soldier among the bodies left in the trolls’ wake. All in all, a profitable exercise.

As one last curiosity, I encountered something odd inside the dungeon. There was a heavily-armoured fellow standing near a pressure plate, so I attempted to lure him into the rock trap and succeeded only in angering him. The interesting part is what happened when I tried to escape: I reached the door, but got clobbered a moment later, causing me to teleport outside as a corpse. After the loading screen, I was treated to the sight of my body pinwheeling down from the clouds past a castle before slamming into the ground, whereupon the game reverted to just after I’d entered the dungeon. Everything was normal, except now a glitchy blood effect was suspended in the air next to the door, and no amount of reloading will make it go away.

Oh, Skyrim. Never change.

16 9 / 2014

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I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, having discovered the wonderful world of mods, and noticed that a lot of the changes people make to the game are attempts to reduce the occurrence of what I call “game logic”: those strange, arbitrary moments that don’t operate on the sort of reasoning one would apply to a similar situation if encountered in reality.

How, for example, does my lizardman know the name of a cave he’s never heard of and just stumbled into one day? There is no rational means by which he could know this information, yet he apparently does. Anybody determined to stamp out all and any instances of game logic in Skyrim might try and mod the game so that locations have either no names, or perhaps a descriptive title based on what you find there. “Damp cave full of spiders” would be pretty to-the-point.

But while tweaking some of the wackier elements can help immersion, there surely has to be a point where attempting to cram as much “realism” into a game as you can would start to do more harm than good. Hardly anybody, for instance, ever complains about the Dragonborn’s ability to change in and out of full plate mail in the blink of an eye, even though this is at least as implausible as fitting thirty mammoth tusks in your pockets.

I find it interesting to consider all the little contrivances I accept without question in games like Skyrim, and weigh up the immersion cost versus the tedium they prevent. Only the craziest of realism fanatics would insist on watching their character struggle into their cuirass for an hour before every fight, but I quite like how the Requiem mod doesn’t let you change outfits once a fight has started. As with so many things, the sweet spot appears to be somewhere between the two extremes.

UPDATE: This post has received a few in-depth responses that are well-worth reading, if you haven’t had enough Elder Scrolls jabber yet.

Image source: http://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/1ui9ku/skyrim_logic/

11 9 / 2014

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Requiem is a Skyrim overhaul that promises to bring the game as close as possible to classic RPGs like Planescape: Torment. Do to this, the mod tweaks pretty much every major mechanic to some extent or other, and the final product is an acquired taste. Given the scale of a game like Skyrim, I can hardly give conclusive thoughts on Requiem’s changes, but the fifteen hours I’ve clocked so far gave me enough food for thought to create a first impressions piece.

If you’re looking for a coherent and time-efficient rundown of Requiem’s features, you’d be better off pointing your eyeballs at Brodual’s informative videos on YouTube. What follows here, on the other hand, is my own observations with the mod so far and how it works in comparison to the vanilla game. Just brace yourself for some meaningless opinions and you should be fine.

If you booted up Requiem with no idea what you were in for, you might conclude it was some slapped-together “hardcore” mod that made the game outrageously hard. Even if you survive the tutorial, running into the first pack of wolves you spot could still spell your doom, let alone the Golden Claw quest that previously acted as baby’s first dungeon.

You see, whereas vanilla Skyrim’s baddies increase in power to match the player’s level, Requiem features a static world with set enemy levels. The effect of this is that a level 1 character will truly feel worthless, prone to getting mauled by skeevers and mudcrabs. The upside, of course, is that what victories you do manage carry much more weight, and every scrap of experience makes you closer to having a shot at taking on the next tier of monster. This adds a whole new sense of purpose to your quest, because no matter how insurmountable that vampire lord may seem at level 8, he might not put up so much of a fight at level 20.

Progression is also made more satisfying by the revamped skill trees. Remember how utterly worthless speech was, and how there was precious little difference between a sword and a mace? With Requiem, not only have the crap skills have been given some purpose, but it’s also much harder to create a jack-of-all-trades; every perk point can make a tangible difference and the unlockable abilities are generally more interesting than a simple passive boost.

Specialisation is key, then, and it helps that your combat experience will vary considerably depending on which of the clichéd RPG heroes you model yourself on.

The rogue can get sneak bonuses, dodge attacks and do crippling long-range damage with a bow, but struggles to penetrate heavy armour and can’t take much of a beating. Meanwhile, the tank soaks up damage like it ain’t no thang and can use two-handed weapons to destroy an opponent’s block, but everybody can outrun them and they suffer huge magic penalties unless they invest in certain skills. Finally, the mage has a wide range of destructive and utility powers, but are helpless if their juice runs out.

What I love even more about this set-up is that the same rules apply to most adversaries, meaning that an encounter can play out very differently depending on how you fight and what your opponents do. Skyrim’s engine doesn’t allow intricate combat of a calibre like Dark Souls, but Requiem still manages to add a layer of strategy that the vanilla game often lacked, making each fight and each player build more memorable.

The whole mod feels designed to give your choices more impact, and to raise the stakes when you venture into unknown territory. Fast-travel is disabled and your carrying capacity is greatly reduced, so an expedition of any significant length will result in your having to tearfully decide which bit of vendor trash is worth keeping. And when you finally find a merchant, of course, the bastard’ll rob you blind unless you’re a master haggler.

There’s just so much more that can go wrong, not least because your health no longer regenerates and potions take a while to heal you. I used to play Skyrim without potions in order to achieve a semblance of balance, but such a handicap would be downright suicidal in Requiem. Finding a sweet bucket of loot means so much more now that death is a regular possibility and you actually have resources to manage.

Would I recommend Requiem to everyone? Definitely not. What I will do with great enthusiasm, though, is recommend Requiem to any experienced roleplayer either dissatisfied with Skyrim as it was released, or looking for a way to fall in love with the game all over again. For me, Requiem has given the land of Skyrim a sense of mystery and dread that it never had before. As such, I’m finally having an adventure of the calibre I was promised in that freaking trailer.

28 8 / 2014

Regenerating health has been a staple of action games ever since Halo landed waaaay back in 2001, and it’s earned its fair share of critics. I myself have previously outlined my issues with the concept, at least when it’s implemented poorly, so I won’t re-write the entire essay here. In short, I often find that regenerating health takes away the potential for tension in a game; no matter how badly you’re doing, plonking yourself behind a wall for a few seconds will see you right again.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is an interesting beast. On the surface, it conforms to the Call of Duty mechanical template, yet there are nuances that suggest some real thought went into the design. One feature in particular inspired the blog post you’re doing me the honour of reading right now.

You see, Gunslinger has regenerating health that works just like any other shooter of recent years, with one slightly brilliant change. If you take a lethal amount of damage, rather than immediately dying, the game goes into slow-motion and you have a chance to dodge the bullet with your name on it. If you fail, you die. But if you succeed, you get an injection of health and the sensation of being a true Wild West badass. This second wind ability has a cooldown, however, preventing you from doing a proper Mr Anderson impression.

If you ask me, this mechanic is a work of subtle genius. First and foremost, the developer solved my core criticism of regenerating health: because your dodge power needs to recharge, that raises the stakes for a while, and a wise player will want to get the heck out of Dodge until their insurance policy is restored. So while it’s still quite easy to exploit cover whenever things get hairy, at least the bullet dodge move helps to make individual firefights feel a bit different. Furthermore, the mechanic manages to grasp some of the tension of having a low life bar in Doom, without encouraging the player to check behind barrels for loot after every fight.

Something else I love about the bullet dodge is it fits in PERFECTLY with the context of the game; you’re supposed to be the cowing-est cowboy who ever cowed, so of course you can dance around bullets when the lead starts flying. Everyone can recall a time when a game’s mechanics raised questions about the logic at work, such as Adam Jensen needing a candy bar in order to punch someone, but I always appreciate when a developer can match mechanics with the tone and rules of the game’s world. Gunslinger’s bullet-dodging might be one of the most elegant examples of this I’ve ever seen.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a wonderful romp well-worth looking into, especially if you want to see a fresh spin on tired shooter tropes. It accomplishes this because it was designed with more apparent craft and love than some games with far more pretence of shaking up the industry. As a fan of Verhoeven action movies, I can appreciate a piece of art designed to appear dumber than it really is.

24 8 / 2014

In my youth, I began a great many terrible story ideas. Most of them are now lost, but I do find the occasional scrap in the bowels of my old bedroom. The images below are the leftovers from a time when I’d been reading Artemis Fowl and playing far too Fragile Allegiance. Nothing here could be salvaged into something publishable, but it does have sentimental value and reminds me that I sure have improved an awful lot. I hope it amuses you as much as it did me.

tryzon.deviantart.com/art/The-oldest-surviving-story-I-ever-wrote-477851324?ga_submit_new=10%253A1408905684

12 8 / 2014

DISCLAIMER: I wrote this a few years back and it’s aged a bit, but I wouldn’t have shared it if I didn’t still think it was worth your time.

It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the FPS genre is, generally speaking, all kinds of shite at the moment; in much the same way that Halo meant every shooter needed to have regenerating health, Call of Duty 4 spawned a mass of grey, carbon-copy “realistic” shooters with a strong emphasis on multiplayer deathmatches. Now, I have nothing against the original Halo or CoD4, but their legacies are much more curses than blessings. In this age of blandness and ultra-mainstream, we need a shooter that goes back to the classic formula, has a blatant disregard for any kind of logic, almost no plot and, above all, tons of gore. Gentlemen, we need a Painkiller.

Inevitable puns aside, Painkiller truly is such a clear demonstration of how badly wrong most FPSes are these days. My go-to example of how to make the perfect shooter has traditionally been TimeSplitters 2. But I must concede that ‘Splitters doesn’t give you a spinning blade that works as an automatic knife, comes with a grappling hook that deploys a laser tripwire and can launch the blade like a mini helicopter of death towards your adversaries. It’s a rare sight indeed to find me complimenting a game for doing something better than ‘Splitters, so this should be making your ears perk up.

If you’re wondering why I, having admitted to wanting something like Doom but with the benefits of modern tech, don’t just play Doom 3, then prepare to have your brain kerploded: I own Doom 3 and played a large chunk of it, but then got very bored indeed. See, even if we overlook the obvious problem of how the game thinks it’s meant to be horror and not action, there’s the additional issue that whoever decided to put a jump scare behind every single door, panel or window was clearly under the impression that endless repetition was the key to success. I could go into detail as to why Doom 3 fails at fear, but my point today is to stress that it bears as much resemblance to the original legend as a sumo wrestler does to a ballerina. No, Painkiller is somehow more of a Doom sequel than the actual Doom sequel, so let’s just drop that topic and move on to praising the more deserving shooter s’more. I’m not even going to mention the notorious lack of sellotape on Mars.

You take the role of a bloke whose life seems perfect until he forgets that keeping one’s hands on the wheel and eyes off one’s insanely beautiful wife are a basic key to avoiding contrived tragedy on the motorway. Forced to linger in Purgatory while the lady goes to Heaven, seemingly for being an innocent victim of her husband’s stupidity, you jump at the chance to ascend and see her again. Of course, there’s a small catch involving having to kill Lucifer’s four generals and thereby prevent the lord of darkness from seizing control of Purgatory. Being a leather jacket-wearing reincarnation of ‘80s Arnie, you agree.

The only plot that gets rubbed in your face after the intro comes in the form of the end-of-chapter cutscenes, though these have a habit of taking themselves too seriously and outstaying their welcome. It’s a shame that the protagonist (whose name I can’t even recall) wasn’t made more memorable, since a few witty one-liners here and there could have so easily made him the greatest man ever to wield a boomstick. Indeed, had they simply brought Bruce Campbell in for the role, you’d be looking at a perfect hero.

But you don’t eat ice cream for the nutritional value and you don’t play Painkiller for the story, so let’s dive in. From the moment you start the first level, you know exactly what you’re in for: there’s no tutorial, no drawn-out explanation of how to make things die, no explanation why you’re fighting skeletal knights and the scariest damn old hags outside of Beales and certainly no reason not to have stupid amounts of fun.

You progress in a linear manner through areas, killing everything you see until the next gate swings open, at which point you saunder through and repeat the process until the glowing, moaning portal to freedom materialises. Dead things drop souls that top up your health and eventually let you unleash a temporary demon mode, while such hallmarks as armour and hidden collectables also make their welcome appearance (“Use your hatred to reave their souls!”). You can even go faster by utilising the ancient art of bunnyhopping. It’s old-school in every way, and that’s completely the point.

A shooter would be laughed out of the party if its weaponry wasn’t suitably boomtacular, and Painkiller has no trouble in that department. Though there are only a grand total of five weapons in the game, they all have an alternate fire mode and make up for their small number by being outstanding. One of the biggest drawbacks of all these realistic shooters we’re seeing at the moment is that you can’t go too silly with the guns or you’ll start to undermine the whole realism aspect.

A game based around fighting demons in Purgatory has no such creative boundaries: the titular Painkiller is the blade mentioned above; the shotgun does what you’d expect, but also lets you freeze opponents who can then be smashed for easy kills; the stakegun could have come from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction and allows one to pin beasts to walls with lengths of wood, along with doubling as a grenade launcher; the chaingun has the same crowd-control capabilities of ‘Splitters 2’s minigun, but also the added explosive capability of rockets; finally, the electrodriver’s combination of shurikens and lightning has already been publicised for good reason, so there’s no need to dwell on that. Owners of the Black Edition also get to play with an SMG/flamethrower combo and a sniper rifle that launches five rods into skulls from great distances, as well as a few bouncing baubles of confusing death. Painkiller’s arsenal is a testament to the benefits of relaxing the realism police’s grip and letting creative people make awesome things; don’t tell me CoD wouldn’t be improved by its own stakegun.

Twenty-four levels are spread out across five chapters, with each chapter culminating in a boss. The beauty of Painkiller is that the missions have little logical order, meaning you can be slogging through a plague-infested Medieval town (complete with witches) one minute and suddenly trading fire with skeletal, gas mask-wearing soldiers in a train station, followed by blowing the heads off whimpering crazies in an asylum. Why? Because it’s awesome. There are too many enemy types to count, and only a bit of recycling. This whole approach creates an atmosphere where any level could be anything, making for legitimate joy when the time to progress comes. The style doesn’t lend itself to a coherent narrative, but what’s not to like about fighting demonic bikers in Venice? Not a thing. And yes, a ridiculous variety of settings is one of TimeSplitters’ hallmarks. Methinks somebody on the dev team was a fan.

I own and love Doom, like any sane man should, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m awful at it. My biggest problem is simply that I get lost constantly. The same thing happens whenever I try Wolfenstein 3D, though at least in that I learned that anywhere overflowing with Nazi corpses was a place I’d already investigated. Since the glory days for such early shooters was before my gaming time, I’m obviously more used to the hand-holding of newer games and as such have a terrible sense of direction. Even when I’m given a clear map of an area, I find myself constantly bringing it up for fear of slightly deviating from the intended path. Painkiller wisely accommodates eejits like me by including a magical arrow at the top of the screen. During battle, it’ll always point to an enemy, but once the coast is clear, it’ll indicate the direction of the next checkpoint. Such a simple feature works wonders in terms of compensating for my lack of an internal compass, and since only the arrow never tells you where to find treasure or bonus goodies, there’s still plenty of room for completists to explore without feeling cheated. Very nicely done, lads.

I’m a sucker for enjoyable physics. The day I stop laughing as a Combine is sent flying into a wall by my rocket is the day I stop gaming. Now, when Doom was first corrupting the minds of adolescent males across the globe, such a thing as ragdolls wasn’t really feasible. That’s not to say that shotgunning monstrosities’ faces into gibs can’t be entertaining by itself, but the technology at the time didn’t allow for the sort of stuff that makes GMod so endlessly comical. Painkiller to the rescue! Shoot something with your weapon of choice and said thing will either collapse to the floor in a heap or explode, showering the area with its squishy bits. You can even use the hookshot to play a twisted match of keepy-uppy by continually pulling a cadaver into the air until it vanishes, earning some extra coin for your trouble. This is the kind of technical enhancement I think we can all appreciate, lads! If you don’t chuckle when you leave a zombie dangling from the ceiling by its skull, you have no right playing your copy of Painkiller and thus depriving a more deserving soul of it. You’re also a communist.

Much of Painkiller’s replay value comes not only from the increasingly sadistic difficulties you can pick, but also from the cunning system know as the tarot cards. These come in two varieties: silver ones give permanent benefits that are felt whenever you play, while golden ones give you superpowers that can be used once per level. You can only equip up to two silvers and three golds at once, and you need enough cash to use them. Naturally, the best toys cost the most, but you get a bit of a refund whenever you remove an old card in order to add a new one.

Cards are unlocked for selection by beating a level’s challenge. Said challenges start easy (“Beat the level”) but quickly become fiendish (“Beat the level without getting hurt even once”). For my first playthrough, I only casually tried to get cards, but the benefits provided by them mean that it’s in your best interests to get all you can if you’re trying to tame the game’s hardest setting. Most of the challenges are entertaining to do, even if some are absolutely vindictive, but it’s a bit naughty that you have no clue what the card you’re slaving away to obtain is. I recommend finding a list of the cards if you can’t be bothered to do all the challenges and just want the nice bonuses, since the effort isn’t always worth it. And just in case you weren’t quite convinced that Painkiller represented sufficient value, each level’s collectables are tallied upon completion and you’re able to try and get the ultimate score. At every turn, it has you covered!

All this talk of difficulty may be off-putting your cajonés are less than terrifying to gaze upon, but even weak little babbies like yourself can partake of this forbidden fruit. The Daydream setting turns the game into the best stress-reliever short of a hired sex slave, and is slightly less embarrassing to be caught enjoying. With this setting, you can merrily slaughter hordes of undead without worrying about such petty matters as actual skill. Ponce.

Given that the visual style of Painkiller makes it one of the most metal games you’ll ever see, it’s unsurprising that the soundtrack consists mainly of instrumental guitars screaming. The tunes do change in-between missions and gunning down slabs of meat to the sound of raw metal is understandably epic, but I have to say that there’s not as many memorable tracks as Doom, whose very menu theme is all kinds of amazing. On that note, I highly recommend trying Painkiller with the Doom soundtrack. The non-battle music is considerably more varied, like the monk moaning in the cathedral or the evil circus racket in the amusement park of your nightmares, but even that is decimated by the classic tunes in TimeSplitters. Remember that bitchin’ guitar rendition of the James Bond theme in GoldenEye? Same bloke did all the music for every ‘Splitters. Personal favourites include Return to Planet X, Siberia, Scotland the Brave and Anaconda. And before all you other ‘Splitters nerds point out that the Anaconda music only plays during the optional minigame and not while fighting, I’ll have you know that you can pick that track to play during a deathmatch. Pwned, bitch.

Painkiller was clearly a labour of love, made by guys who wanted to express themselves. In my eyes, creating something that lets people set clowns on fire is as much a means of expression as painting a pretty lady holding a spoon, or whatever it is those painter types do. Locations have rather a twisted, exaggerated and nightmarish version; don’t get me started on the weird goings-on in the orphanage, which clearly failed a few health inspections. Then there are the little touches, like the one level where crows peck at corpses you create, or the fact that some projectiles can be deflecting using blade-‘o-doom. Stuff like that just shows that people spent time and effort to make the experience that extra bit more interesting, and I approve.

Since my version of Painkiller is the Black Edition, I feel I should give a concise summary of the Battle out of Hell that comes bundled with the main game. Quite simply, it’s an extra score of levels with new baddies and a pair of groovy new guns to eviscerate them with. There’s not much else to say about it, other than bring up my theory that the pack was conceived as a way of utilising the developers’ more unhinged ideas that didn’t make the cut the first time. The trickiness factor is also ramped up a fair bit, so don’t underestimate those knife-wielding demon orphans.

You may have noticed a general lack of complaints so far. This must be remedied. First off, I like the soul-collecting mechanic, and I understand the strategy in choosing between grabbing as many as possible (thereby leaving yourself open to attack) or focussing on combat, but there are still times when waiting for the green globules to emerge following an ambush seems to take an age.

And what of the impressive boss fights, which are actually a bit pump once you get over how pretty they are? The ending fight in particular could easily be won by just holding the button down and running backwards at the right moment. I realise that FPSes and boss battles don’t have the most peaceful history, but…yeah.

I’ve already mentioned that some of the card challenges are cruelly hard, but I need to reiterate that they really are preposterous at times. I just know somebody’s going to pop up and say they earned all the cards on Trauma without hassle, but for all us regular mortals who haven’t signed any Faustian pacts of late, such a feat would be nothing short of Herculean.

Lastly, it has to be said that the AI is at best aggressive and at worst thick as a pigeon. Most baddies just charge straight into your barrels, which I don’t mind so much, but it gets a bit ridiculous when you see them getting stuck on low walls or even just standing in a corner until you slice their limbs off to get their attention. Given how much of the shooting involves pogoing round rooms while frantically hurling lead-flavoured pain at your assailants, the computer’s habit of just massing you works, but the daft situations described above detract from the experience a bit. In a more grim-toned game with a legitimate plot that you might get immersed in, such instances would stick out more, but a mad creation like Painkiller can get away with it; any game that lets me grind up children for chuckles is going to get some lenience from me.

So that’s Painkiller, folks: violent, stupid, non-sensical and backwards. It’s these qualities that make it one of my favourite FPSes in the whole of forever. Yes, I hold it in the same regard as Urban Chaos: Riot Response and even the mighty TimeSplitters 2. That’s like if I said I considered a movie on par with RoboCop, Highlander and Total­-smegging­-Recall. Can you even comprehend how much I love Painkiller? Probably not, which is why I hereby order you to play it right now. To GOG with you!

This last little segment goes on the assumption that you’re now determined to get Painkiller and need only decide which format is best for you. Well, if the obvious benefits of a mouse aren’t enough reason to seek out the PC version, then the fact that the Xbox port (subtitled Hell Wars) is not actually a straight conversion, but rather a random mix of levels from the main game and Battle out of Hell. All very strange. I’ve also heard that the Xbox edition introduced some unpleasant bugs, though I can’t personally confirm that. Plus they might have patched it, who knows? More definitely problematic is the fact that all the other expansions appear to be PC-exclusive, with the most recent being only available off Steam. Given that Painkiller is something you can never overdose on, not being able to play every part of it ever is probably reason enough not to get the Xbox one. Don’t let me stop you, especially since I haven’t personally tried it, but the PC just seems the way to go.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some clowns to skewer…

21 7 / 2014

A comment on my Gone Home let’s play has spawned a pretty hefty discussion, after Tado Kollar gave an intriguing definition of what constitutes a game. The debate is ongoing, but clicking the link here should take you to the up-to-date version.

21 7 / 2014

the-domhnall-of-zena:

In a stunning turn of events, a Rexputin fanfic has come into existence. I’m scared and you should be too.