Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Borderlands

Usually when writing these 100 Minutes With pieces the game I’m writing about is fresh in my mind. I’ll have only just bought it or I’ll have been playing it just prior to writing. Often I’ll take notes, so as not to get essential facts wrong.

Today I have no such preparations on hand and I haven’t played the game in question for a good many months. This is acceptable--nay, encouraged--because Borderlands isn’t concerned with planning ahead or lasting repercussions. Borderlands is the epitome of hit ‘em fast and hit ‘em hard gameplay. Like life, it’s spontaneous, and having sunk far more than one hundred minutes into the game that’s exactly how I like it.

Borderlands’ premise was so bold that before its release there were plenty of nay-sayers stating it wouldn’t--couldn’t--deliver on its promises. A loot-based first person shooter with RPG trappings? Absurd. Impossible.

The nays grew in volume with every video Gearbox released, the sayers more savage in their intensity. This wasn’t a game that simply didn’t work, they said, it was a bad game. It was slow; it was clumsy; the shooting--such an integral part of the game--was unsatisfying. They spun lies based on footage they’d seen or unfinished code they’d played. The enemies didn’t react to being fired upon--the only indication that you were making an impact upon them were floating numbers indicating damage. Borderlands’ vaunted gun system--in which weapons were randomly generated on the fly and numbered in their millions--produced an arsenal they said was unsatisfying next to the limited weapon counts in every other game ever made. This brave, noble idea, so they said, was a fool’s dream.

When Edge magazine awarded Borderlands six out of ten and other early reviewers weren’t exactly enthusiastic, it seemed the nay-sayers had been right all along.

But they hadn’t been.

Let me tell you about Betsy. Betsy was my favourite character in Borderlands, a character unique to my game, who followed no script, who had no voice actor, whom nobody but a few lucky gamers I played with ever knew about but who nevertheless had more personality than 90% of written characters in 90% of games. Betsy was a gun--not a rare drop, not something sculpted by artists and placed deliberately in the game but a gun I happened across, as randomly generated as any of the other 17 million guns. She was a six-shooting shotgun that did hideous amounts of damage to anything with the misfortune to get in our way. From a distance she was a nightmare to wield--she couldn’t aim for shit. But up close she was a grinder of meat, a shredder of metal, a weapon that smacked down even the hardest villain in couple of shots. It didn’t matter that she loaded slower than 128k Spectrum game. By the time I needed to reload her the fight would already be over.

She was awesome. Not in a turtle power “Dude, that’s awesome!” kind of a way, but in a Close Encounters, religious experience kind of awesome, the kind of awesome that provokes awe, not ‘90s surfer dude clich├ęs.

She wasn’t the only thing I had going for me in the world of Borderlands, not the only thing that would have my co-op buddies’ jaws agape. Playing Brick the Berserker, when the going got tough I’d fly into a cackling rage, run up to whichever villain was giving us trouble--be it pint-sized mutant or robot mega-boss--and punch it until it exploded. Every time I did this my team mates on the other end of Xbox Live would be reduced to giggles. I imagine them stunned into inaction, watching as the lumbering idiot, all shoulder muscle and attitude, bum-rushed the enemy and felled them in a flurry of flaming fists. In all my time playing Borderlands multiplayer I never got to see this spectacle from the other side, watching another Brick dashing into the fray to wail on the bad guys, but I saw monsters fall at the hands of a mutant kestrel, watched the group soldier erect turrets that endlessly refilled the group’s ammunition, saw a Siren flash across the battlefield, through walls and doors, dismembering enemies before they realised she was behind them.

Even in a world filled with so many wonders Betsy was my ace in the hole. Nobody I knew was lucky enough to find such a diamond in the rough. When we opened treasure chests and ran as one to see if any of the blue, purple and orange loot would be useful, while the others measured accuracy stats and brandished their new toys I always came away disappointed. In the dozen hours of gameplay after finding her I never met a gun that outperformed Betsy. She was the powerhouse of my arsenal and though I sometimes switched to other guns to take on more distant threats--such as Mothrakk, a Pandoran bat who blotted the sky with wings the size of swimming pools--whenever it came to ground-based action it was Betsy I turned to.

I gave her up reluctantly. She was a fairly low-level gun, too low for a Berserker hitting his mid-thirties. I eventually found better guns, faster guns, and though I held her in my inventory I used her less and less. Finally I passed her onto a co-op buddy who was suitably honoured that I should give up to him not just a decent gun, but a gun I’d named, a gun I’d spoken about so often he knew her name. “You take care of her,” I told him. He didn’t need me to tell him anything. He’d seen her in action. He knew what she could do.

In time he passed Betsy on to another player, hopefully with enough reverence that he or she in turn passed her on to somebody else. I like to think Betsy was never cast aside like a white-hued revolver, dropped on the ground and forgotten when the level reset. I like to think even now someone out there is passing her on to an awestruck friend. “This is Betsy,” they say. “You take care of her.”

That gun had more character than most video games, it’s true. And Borderlands--which mightn’t be perfect, which have a hundred different fetch quests linked by interminable grind, pitting you against palette swap enemies in areas you’ll visit so often you could negotiate them with your eyes closed--thrives upon these brief and unique flashes of character. Ask a Borderlands fan about the game and he might tell you about its sense of humour. He might throw out some lines of its immensely quotable dialogue or talk about Claptrap, the game’s irritating yet strangely lovable mascot.

Or maybe he’ll tell you about the time he lay dying in the dirt, down to his last bullet, his partner pinned under fire too far away to help, and as the screen darkened and the last of his life ebbed away he made a one in a million head-shot, rescuing his buddy and reviving himself in the process. This is a game where killing an enemy in the last few seconds of your life is like throwing another credit into a ‘Game Over. Continue?’ arcade machine.

What every one of those reviewers and nay-sayers missed is that Borderlands mirrors life in its richness. Its blasted landscapes are often drab, its action is often monotonous, but there are moments when the levels open up in breathtaking vistas, moments made all the more poignant by the rusted metal and dusty canyons traversed in order to reach them. My co-op partner, the recipient of my treasured Betsy, often said: “This really is a beautiful game, isn’t it?” Every time he did, he said it with surprise, as if he hadn’t noticed before.

When an unexpected moment of comedy arises in the unlikeliest of situations, that’s pure Borderlands. When a routine firefight goes awry and you find yourself drilled under cover, cobbling together tactics in hope you might make it out of the level alive, that’s Borderlands as well.

A gun called Betsy in a sea of disposable pea-shooters? You’d better believe that’s Borderlands.

Borderlands is one of my favourite games from the past few years. It’s this spontaneity tempered with a certain slow-paced solidity that marks it apart from the many other first person shooters released in this time frame, all of which, with their noise and bluster, feel almost ephemeral in comparison. They’re blockbuster movies compared with Borderlands’ slow-burning TV series. Like Babylon 5 or The Wire, the start--the first hundred minutes, if you will--is the hardest part to get through. For the first few levels your weapons will be weak, your powers non-existent and fighting through skags--bottom-feeding rat-dog hybrids--soon becomes tiresome. But continue and your perseverance will be rewarded. This is your training, your course in surviving the wilds and wastelands of Pandora. Just as death in Borderlands can mean life, so the game’s lowest points make the highs feel even higher.

I recommend it, utterly and without hesitation, to anyone tired of being pushed through monotonous contemporary shooters. Those Modern Warfare guns with names like a toppled pile of toddlers’ alphanumeric learning blocks--you don’t need any more of those in your life.

No, what you need is a Betsy.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Dragon Quest is a legend, not a game. It’s said that the release of every new title in the series stops Tokyo in its tracks. People of all ages, from all walks of life schedule time off school and work just to play the damned thing. As a video game franchise, it’s as big as they come, yet for many years it was virtually unknown outside its home country. While the Western world was wowed by Final Fantasy’s cinematics, back East, Japan suckled at the Dragon Quest teat. This was the series that separated fan boy from otaku. This was the JRPG at its purist.

It took Dragon Quest VIII to introduce the West to the franchise’s allure (and no, it wasn’t the first Dragon Quest game released outside Japan; just bear with me, okay?) because Dragon Quest VIII was the first game in the series to have a lush, 3D world and a localisation that wasn’t just acceptable, it was enjoyable. It had been translated into English so well it made every Japanese game ever given a PAL EU release sound like it was channelling Dick van Dyke. Dragon Quest VIII had proper cockneys and Scots and Welshies and everything in between, and while it wasn’t perfect, chances are you were too busy grinning to notice its imperfections. It was a bright, joyous affair, the perfect counterpoint to the steampunk Star Wars antics of Final Fantasy XII which was released soon after. Back to back, the two signified a golden age for the JRPG. If this was what we could expect from the Squaresoft/Enix merge then the gaming world was a better place for it.

Dragon Quest IX is its follow-up, somehow bigger and better despite being crammed onto a DS card and promoted by Jedward. That Jedward--the mutated offspring of the Judderman and the Twins from The Matrix Reloaded; a pair of twinned popstrels discovered by Simon Cowell in a Morlock cavern beneath the X-Factor studio and through unthinking malice unleashed upon the nation--should advertise a video game--and a JRPG at that--speaks volumes. Until this point Nintendo had pop stars and celebrities schilling for family friendly games--Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Mario Kart--and educational software that taught pensioners how to draw or play Sudoku. JRPGs aren’t about waving Wii-wands; they’re not made for the Redknap family. Dragon Quest otaku had every right to be up in arms about Jedward--a couple of toilet brushes with learning difficulties--advertising this most prized jewel in the JRPG crown.

Except, as Jedward are to people who don’t like music or human intelligence, Dragon Quest IX is a game for people who don’t really like video games. It’s therefore perfectly suited to being advertised by stars who have problems telling left from right. “Heresy!” I hear you cry--but please, for the second time this article, bear with me.

As with any genre that’s been around for so long, JRPGs have long since rested on their laurels and adhered to a set code of conduct. Turn-based and menu-driven, there’s little separating Dragon Quest from its brethren. If aliens were to descend from the heavens demanding to be shown an example of our Earthling Japanese Role Playing Games, this would be the game we’d show them. Given that Jedward--like Lady Gaga was slit across her mid-riff and revealed to be a couple of imps standing one atop the other’s shoulders--are as close as the human race has to otherworldly beings, this is the game we gave to them, and to all their followers who, in complete contradiction to common sense, have made them an unlikely success.

I’m not saying Dragon Quest doesn’t require skill to play, or that there aren’t tactical depths concealed behind its charming exterior. But in the first hundred minutes--and for several hours thereafter--you won’t be plumbing them: you’ll be pressing the same button over and over again. For the first hundred minutes it takes as much thought to play Dragon Quest IX as it does to shriek “Cringe!” from beneath a hairstyle resembling a startled, anaemic bull-rush. In fact the most demanding thing you’ll do during this time is pick out a hairstyle from all the choices given.

Clocking in at playtime measured in weeks, Dragon Quest plays the long game. At times it deceives, presenting open fields to roam across only small corners of which hold anything of interest. It’s as padded as a supermodel playing Friar Tuck. Battles encountered after twenty hours of play require only marginally more attention than those encountered at the start--that’s twenty hours of repeatedly pressing the same button. Attack, choose your enemy, repeat--it’s like the back of a shampoo bottle stuck in a feedback loop. Your cohorts, should you take them with you (unlike the colourful cast of Dragon Quest XIII your party consists of randomly generated bots who can escort you or be abandoned as required) are either controlled individually or left to follow behavioural rules which have them fight aggressively or conservatively depending on your needs. They’re perfectly capable of looking after themselves, which leaves you at a loss for anything to do other than hit the attack button again and again and again. It’s like being a shepherd with a pack of particularly intelligent sheepdogs: you could whistle, but all you really need do is close the gate once they’re done.

The only scripted character accompanying you on your quest is Stella, a fairy cut from the same cloth as Ocarina of Time’s Navi, who berates you for anything improper, like, say, independent thought. Dialogue options (in the shape of questions with yes/no answers) are only included for show. Tell a villager that no, you don’t want to help him, and Stella chews you out; try to leave a town when you still have business there and she becomes downright irate. You’re tethered to the story with an industrial elastic belt: attempt to deviate from it and you’ll be pinged right back on track with Stella’s reprimands ringing in your ears.

By JRPG standards there’s a lot to see and do in Dragon Quest IX. The Battle Log contains pages of monsters, clothes, achievements and items to collect--it’s a set collecting game as much as it’s an RPG. The alchemy system unlocked several hours in scratches an obsessive compulsive urge--you’ll want to recreate weapons you already have in your inventory just to remove the question mark next to their list entry. But it’s the largest fish in a very small pond. Next door, Skyrim rules the western RPG ocean, defining openness as yelling a goat off a cliff, grabbing mayflies from the sunset sky and eating them in your pants, killing an entire village--quest-givers and all--just because one of them has an face you don’t particulartly care for. Dragon Quest’s openness extends to palette-swap enemies and a half-dozen sets of collectable animal-ear hair bands. It is a trompe l’oeil of open gameplay.

And I want to hate it for giving the illusion of openness, and for its battles throughout which my involvement boils down to choosing the same attack options regardless of my foes--for being, in short, the kind of game which deserves to be sold to Jedward fans.

But I can’t.

I can’t tell you exactly why I like Dragon Quest IX so much. I can’t tell you how enjoyable it is to visit my wife’s game world and run around like a superhero, eviscerating monsters she has trouble with in a single stroke. I don’t know why it’s fun collecting party tricks--MMORPG emotes--then binding four of them to a single button to make it look as if my character’s breakdancing. Why do I fight monsters for experience point despite there being no experience bar to catalogue them and despite having to return to a church to discover how close I am to advancing to the next level? Why do I put up with this constrictive, archaic system when other, wider games are more appealing and much closer to my heart?

It beats the hell out of me.

What I can say is that much of Dragon Quest IX’s charm lies in detail uncharacteristic of the genre. The nameless, identikit NPCs all say different things depending on the time of day or how far you’ve advanced through the story. Equipment is depicted in-engine, meaning whatever weapon or item of clothing your characters are equipped with can be seen at a glance--you can tell the difference between worn cat ears and bunny ears even on the DS’s titchy screen. Monsters respond in a variety ways when in battle, sometimes choosing not to attack at all but to become enthralled with a certain member of your group or sit around dumbly, playing with daisies underfoot. This varied behaviour only adds to the charm of a menagerie that is already uniformly charming, as does seeing all parties involved in a fight scurry about between attacks, lining them up and interacting with one another, removing the abstract nature that usually accompanies turn-based combat. Every attack’s cause and effect are clearly on display and help give each battle a unique feel.

And let’s not ignore that this is a visually sumptuous game, arriving late enough in the DS’s life to take full advantage of the hardware. Playing a game so majestic on a humble handheld--the same console that played home to Cooking Mama, no less--is a thrill unto itself. When it was announced there was some fan consternation as to whether the DS could do justice to a mainline Dragon Quest title being as it was a step down in power from the Playstation 2 on which the previous game had been released. The DS acquits itself so admirably in this task that Dragon Quest IX genuinely feels more impressive than its predecessor rather than simply feeling impressive because you can play it on the toilet: it’s a sequel that feels like a sequel, rather than a game emasculated to fit onto a handheld.

Like World of Warcraft--which it resembles at times--Dragon Quest IX is a game of unlikely but undeniable charm. Large parts of it are spent performing repetitive tasks for little reward; it’s a time waster, but like fishing off a pier or pottering in the garden it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

It’s gentle, feel-good gaming, and do you know what? If it meant that more people played it, enjoyed it and smiled about it, I don’t mind that Jedward advertised it. In pop culture terms that’s as high as praise comes.