BEATEN: Ultrawings (PS4, 2017)

Ultrawings is a supremely chilled out VR flight sim. Set in an oceanic archipelago, you must undergo various Pilotwings-y style tasks: flying through rings, landing on targets, shooting balloons and so on. Completing these gives you cash, cash allows you to unlock new islands and aircraft, which in turn unlocks more tasks. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a blissfully summery game, full of equally blue skies and oceans, serene environments (love the distant ringing of church bells from the island villages) and a flight model that errs on the side of fun rather than realism. It never got boring flicking the various planes’ virtual switches and levers, and navigating with the Move controllers makes for a surprisingly tactile experience.

Ultrawings_20190720114420

I unlocked all the planes and islands, but I don’t think I finished the game (though I’m not sure if this game even has a traditional roll credits ending). I think I stopped playing the moment before it stopped being fun – as much as I love dreamy bucolic flying games there are only so much floating rings I can fly through. But if I ever want to relax up and tootle around in a plane in a lovely virtual environment I know where to go.

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BEATEN: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2, 2004 / PS3, 2011)

Metal Gear Solid just does it for me. In an industry where so many titles feel designed by committee, MGS is largely the vision of an individual. It’s a game series that can be political and sincere one minute and then scatologically adolescent the next: the serious nestled alongside the ridiculous and somehow achieving harmony.

I’ve played these games many times over the years, with my last full playthrough of the series taking place in the run-up to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s release in September 2015. Now, with a tactical espionage action itch in need of scratching I’m back for another go around.

Previous playthroughs I’ve done the games in a sensible release order, beginning with the MSX titles and ending with the final PS4 instalment. This time around I’m doing it chronologically, beginning with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and following the byzantine saga right up until the futuristic cyborg action of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. This probably isn’t the ‘right’ way to do it, but hey, it’ll be a fun bit of whiplash going from a 2015 game to a 1987 one.

And boy, Snake Eater is a stunning piece of design. Coming after the enormously hyped Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty proved to be divisive, Snake Eater finds creater Hideo Kojima with something to prove. And so, to contrast the digital technological sheen of Sons of Liberty he serves up an analogue jungle bristling with life.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot here, but as the genesis of the series it’s fairly straightforward. It’s 1963 and you are special forces soldier Naked Snake, one day destined to become antagonist Big Boss. Your mission is to infiltrate a Soviet weapons research base in order to prevent nuclear war. There are a couple of wrinkles along the way, but by and large the game doesn’t deviate from this through-line.

What really makes Snake Eater so exceptional is the densely layered gameplay systems that are pancaked upon one another, granting the player a lot of freedom in how they proceed. These systems range from maintaining Snake’s camouflage, hunger and physical condition; the hunger and morale of the enemy soldiers; the jungle wildlife; the weather and time of day; your own food becoming rotten; the condition of your equipment and…; well, the list goes on.

All of this contributes to a powerful sense of place, that puts you as part of an ecosystem in the jungle. The environment is rendered astonishingly well for a PlayStation 2 game (and looks amazing in the 2011 HD Collection remaster), and learning how to read and utilise it proves key to the game. This process of mastery is immensely satisfying – as the game begins you feel (appropriately) naked in the wilderness. By the time the curtain is getting ready to raise the jungle will be your most powerful weapon.

This all comes to a head in the iconic boss fight against legendary sniper The End. This is a sniper duel that takes place over three large jungle maps. You must hunt down The End as he’s hunting you, a process that involves paying attention to every twitch of the the grass, the movement of birds, footprints in the mud, lens flashes in the distance and to every single audio cue. Correctly figuring out his whereabouts and then circling around to sneak up on him from behind is a truly rewarding experience.

But then if you don’t want to you don’t have to do any of that. Aside from the usual difficulty modes you can completely skip the fight by shooting him after a cutscene earlier in the game, you can set the system clock forwards and cause him to die of old age, you can use thermal goggles to easily spot where he is, you can input the Konami code to spot his location… But the thrill of doing the fight ‘honestly’ can’t be beat.

That’s the best bit of the game, but there are so many highlights here its impossible to list. Snake Eater is a damn near perfect fusion of gameplay, narrative, graphics, creativity and ambition – every time I play it I discover new tricks I hadn’t tried before. Any minor flaws (I still hate The Fury boss fight) can be excused.

Next I’ll move on from the most lauded to one of the more criticised titles: the almost non-canon Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. See you there next month.

BEATEN: The Walking Dead: The Final Season (PC, 2018)

Telltale Games having died and come back to life in order to finish The Walking Dead makes for way too obvious a metaphor. But with all that’s been written on the developer’s management woes and subsequent drama, the actual quality of The Final Season has been a bit overlooked.

So it’s a nice surprise that not only is The Final Season the best since Season 1, but that there’s absolutely no sign of the backstage drama present in the game.

As is typical whenever the player character arrives somewhere calm and peaceful in The Walking Dead games you get about five minutes before the whole thing goes to shit. Four seasons in you can see this coming a mile off, and though you might hope the game will subvert itself, it doesn’t.

That said, things do start out on a bit of a wobble. Set roughly six or seven years after The New Frontier, we catch up Clementine as she attempts to raise six year old AJ while living on the road and dodging raiders and walkers. Soon into the season we come across an old school that’s been taken over by the children, with strong echoes of Lord of the Flies.

However, it’s quickly apparent that the writing and character development is a step up from previous seasons. At the core is the nice inversion of Clementine becoming the new Lee as she teaches a child how to survive in this world. It gives you an opportunity to evaluate your thinking way back in 2012 during Season 1 and see if you’ve changed in the meantime.

In addition, the fact that this is definitely no kidding the end of this series means that the writers are more liberated in how they develop Clementine and AJ. Previously they had to factor into leaving her set up for following seasons, but now anything goes.

That all means that when the finale comes they land it perfectly, ending Clementine’s story in a way that doesn’t feel cheap, appears as if it’s respected your choices to this point (as always, peeking behind the curtain at possible endings is a bad idea) and doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

At the core of Telltale’s games is the illusion of choice. Budget, time and design constraints mean that the fib they’re selling of a truly reactive story can never truly work, and the worst Telltale games expose this.

But The Final Season is the most successful illusion yet: you’ve been through so much with Clementine over the last 7 years that even though the vast majority of your choices won’t influence events here, you feel as though they are. And that proves to be enough to give it real weight and closure.

Taken in totality, the four seasons of The Walking Dead are a huge achievement in video game narrative. Hugely grateful to Skybound Games for finishing this off, and I hope the talent formerly at Telltale finds a home that respects them more than their former management did.

BEATEN: Lego Rock Band (Xbox 360, 2009)

The November 2009 release of Lego Rock Band marked the point at which many people realised that the whole plastic instruments craze was running out of steam. After a blizzard of titles across the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises, was a kid-focused Lego spin-off really warranted? The general mood at the time was that this was a step too far, especially given that it’s got a relatively small 45 song library (compared to the 84 songs in Rock Band 2).

I picked it up in 2009 on PS3, but like many people I simply exported its song library to Rock Band 2 and resold the game without playing it. But returning to it 10 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, Lego Rock Band turns out to be one of the more enjoyable games of its ilk.

For one, the Lego license forces the game not to take itself so seriously and provides a neat and surprisingly long single-player story. While taking a band from playing basement gigs to stadiums and beyond is ‘yer typical music game story, this mixes in battles against ghosts, dinosaurs, Arthurian legend and an extended finale that sees you abducted by aliens to play outer space gigs with Queen.

The highlights are the Rock Power Challenges, in which you must, for example, play The Hives’ Tick Tick Boom to demolish a building, bust ghosts in a haunted mansion to Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters and escape from a killer Lego T-Rex to The Automatic’s Monster. I’m playing on Expert so I can’t pay that much attention to the video playing behind the note chart, but these challenges still provides more of a sense of purpose and excitement than these games generally do.

And, whereas the addition of real-life musicians in the Guitar Hero games ends up with like badly animated caricatures that feel vaguely insulting – especially to the dead ones – Lego Rock Band pulls it off. A Lego minifig David Bowie is inherently ridiculous, especially when it’s prancing around the stage to Let’s Dance. Bowie is definitely the highlight, but I had a big grin on my face seeing Lego Freddie Mercury and Lego Blur too. You also get Lego Iggy Pop because… well, kid’s love Iggy, right?

On top of all that, the song selection is really fun. Aside from the odd mid-2000s emo song (or the deeply regrettable inclusion of the Lostprophets) there’s a bunch of bouncy indie like The Coral’s Dreaming of You, Vampire Weekend’s A-Punk and classics like Iggy Pop’s The Passenger that are just straight-up fun.

I like the sad face in Iggy’s abs.

Plus, the younger focus means there’s no screamo metal with endless guitar wankery. I mean, it’s not high art but give me KT Tunstall’s Suddenly I See over some of the higher tier songs in other rhythm games any day. I will never, ever enjoy Carl Dougles’ Kung Fu Fighting though.

Lego Rock Band provided more than enough to keep me going until the credits. It’s a seriously neat little entry to the rhythm genre and an underrated game in general. The multiple licenses involved (and no-one really giving a shit about it in general) mean it’ll most likely languish on PS3 and Xbox 360 forever, but dammit, this is good stuff!

BEATEN: Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot (PS4, 2019)

I’m a sucker for MachineGames’ Wolfenstein alt-history action, which provides unexpectedly touching and smart drama that sits neatly alongside the simple pleasures of exploding fascists into small bloody chunks. So I’m on board with whatever they decide to serve me up.

Released alongside Youngblood (which I will play soon), Cyberpilot is a VR game in which you play a hacker taking over the various Nazi killer robots. You play as a small and vulnerable drone in stealth levels, a fire-breathing Panzerhund and the gigantic missile spewing mech Zitadelle in short levels. The game tells a short story using the tried-and-tested conceit that you’re using VR… in VR.

Cyberpilot is a very short game – at most about two hours from start to finish. It’s also not particularly replayable, with a short story and little reason to go back and improve your score or get a faster time through a level. On top of that, PS4 clearly struggles to maintain 60 fps, with the more open levels ending up blurry and the adaptive resolution rendering middle distance enemies as just black smudges. There’s also something strange going on with the audio levels, with the game’s story provided by a narrator whose voice over is incredibly hard to hear, even after fiddling with various settings.

But I enjoyed myself. Maybe it was because I picked it up used for a couple of bucks. Maybe it was because my expectations were pretty low and I’d been warned it was very short. Maybe it’s just because I am unlikely to get bored of incinerating Nazis while controlling a giant robot dog. Whatever the case, it was a compact and satisfying experience, albeit one I’m not in a huge rush to return to.

BEATEN: The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986)

Some of my happiest gaming memories come from the Zelda series. They reliably deliver a sense of wonder, reward exploration and have that difficult to define Nintendo inspiration stuffed into every corner. Despite loving them, there are some big gaps in my Zelda knowledge and it’s time to fix them. And so, courtesy of Nintendo Switch Online, it’s time to go back to Hyrule, 1986 style.

I’ve actually put quite a bit of time into The Legend of Zelda on original hardware. Back in the late 90s a friend sold me his NES with The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3 for about £20. The battery back-up was still working, the lustre on the gorgeous golden cartridge hadn’t dulled and I ended up making it about halfway into the game before a Wizrobe related difficulty spike sent me packing.

Nice choice of dungeon map guys.

Now, 20 years on from when I first played it and more than three decades since its release, I’ve finally reassembled the Triforce, defeated Ganon, saved Princess Zelda and become the Hero of Hyrule. And I had a lot of fun doing it

What’s interesting about The Legend of Zelda from a contemporary perspective is how complete it feels. Almost all the building blocks of the franchise are there right out of the gate. You gradually collect tools like bombs, boomerangs and a bow. There’s a musical instrument item you play to solve puzzles. Dodongo and Gohma are both present as bosses. Heart pieces are hidden around the world.

Plus, there’s that weirdly specific Zelda gloom of a cartoon world that’s either teetering on the edge of something terrible or recovering from disaster. You see it in Ocarina of Time, with the open field outside the villages filling with roaming skeletons at night, the drowned world of Wind Waker, Link’s Awakening’s fading dream, Twilight Princess‘s weird shadow world and, most recently, in the straight up no kidding post-apocalyptic Breath of the Wild.

And, weirdly, it’s Breath of the Wild that the original entry in the series has the most in common with. Both games give you an overarching goal and throw you into an open world with little guidance on how to achieve it. For example, in both you can freely wander off wherever you choose – but stray too far into unfriendly territory and you may find a Lynel you’re ill-prepared to deal with. Both games even start you out swordless and require you to visit a bearded man in a cave right at the start of the game. It really feel as though the development of Breath of the Wild began with a replay of this game and asking why it was such a hit.

It’s also a fantastic history lesson that makes you appreciate how consistent the Zelda design philosophy has remained over the years. But there is a tonne of rough edges to contend with. Part of the thinking behind the puzzles was that players would interact with each other to share information, i.e. if you bomb this random square on a map you’ll find a secret item.

That means that if you go into The Legend of Zelda blind you’re going to have a rough time. There are a lot of incredibly obscure things you must do to progress, and though I hate resorting to a walkthrough I don’t know how else I was supposed to know that I had to provide a silent monster a bait item I didn’t even know existed. Plus, the actual in-game hints are very poorly translated. What am I supposed to do with “There are secrets where fairies don’t live.”?

There’s also a huge difficulty increase sometime around the fourth or fifth dungeon, which begin filling with multiple projectile spewing monsters that can drain your life in seconds. By the final dungeon the only way I was proceeding with any real pace was to save state before every combat room. You do get better at the game’s four-way top down combat system, and learning the harder enemies’ patterns feels a bit like learning dance moves, but sometimes you’re going to eat a hit and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But for all the minor annoyances, finally finishing the first entry in the series felt great. But, with many, many Zelda games ahead of me, Princess Zelda and Hyrule aren’t out of the woods yet.

Up next: the black sheep of the Zelda family and the one they advise you skip because it’s crushingly unfun and difficult: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Whoo…

BEATEN: Tomb Raider (PC, 2013)

By the time Tomb Raider rolled around I was primed to get to know Lara Croft all over again. I adored the original, though Angel of Darkness soured me on her and I (perhaps wrongly) skipped the Legends/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy.

This is a proper reboot, jettisoning pretty much everything except the core (pun intended) concept of Lara. So she’s a posh English woman with a thirst for adventure and a scary amount of determination, but that’s about it as far as elements from the old games go. Whereas the classic games were about nonlinear exploration and puzzle-solving, this clearly cribs from the Uncharted playbook in its cover-based combat, set-piece led design and visual style.

Leaving some of that stuff behind is a shame, although it’s easy to remember the good times in the classic CORE games and forget the player-unfriendly obscurity and difficulty spikes. What remains goes down real easy.

Lara moves and animates beautifully, the combat is crisp and brutal (the bow is very fun) and though traversal paths are clearly laid out for you, it’s still satisfying to move through the environments.

But my favourite thing is Lara’s transformation into a world class badass. She begins the journey shipwrecked and injured on a mysterious island. But as the game goes on she gradually becomes more and more competent, and the game’s villains grow more and more afraid of her. All that eventually leads to one of my favourite moments in any Tomb Raider game:

There’s not much that beats the enemies fleeing in fear: “She’s got a grenade launcher! Run!”. Lara: “That’s right! Run you bastards! I’m coming for you all!” After an entire game spent being outgunned, hiding from danger and fleeing in panic, it’s super cool to turn the tables and have a furious Lara kick ass.

In retrospect it’s kinda funny that there was a lot of prerelease criticism about the game making Lara into a victim, whereas the actual game is about her transformation into a blood-soaked avatar of death and terror. Plus, the way she’s constantly being bashed about, only to pick herself and keep on going is kind of inspiring. It’s kind of a shame the other two games in the reboot trilogy don’t build from this character development, instead having her repeat the same arc to lessened effect.

Oh well, this one still rules. I still miss old-school chunky polygon Lara, but I think the two major eras of the character can co-exist.