The "Dark Souls II" launch trailer
According to Metacritic, action role-player Dark Souls II is the best game released so far in 2014, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC formats. But have the critics got it wrong? Matt Lees reckons they might...
People who argue that games can't be like art clearly haven't spent much time in a gallery. Go to the Tate Modern and glance past those thoughtfully propping up their chins while spouting wisdom stolen from the Guardian, the foreign tourists who are there because a guidebook told them they should be and the kids using it as a makeshift playground, and you'll usually find at least one person whose eyebrows are furrowing into a dismissive brow. A brow that seems to be saying, "What is this awful shit?"
Nothing whips up pointless partisan wankers quite as easily as art. I think the work of Jackson Pollock is fantastic; you genuinely think it's a load of old spunk. There's no middle ground here, so let's have a fight, the problem being of course that "You Don't Get It" versus "It Is Shit" is the most tedious war in cultural history. It's also one that manifests itself in the worst way possible when you're looking at video games.
Because unlike other mediums, a degree of baseline competency is requisite with video games. You don't have to have a degree-level qualification in Vests 'n' Bombs to appreciate Die Hard, but most games tend to strictly insist that certain neural pathways aren't firing blanks. It's a fairly token requirement, but one regularly blown out of proportion by tedious numpties who seem to believe that you can't truly appreciate games unless you're amazing at them.
Video game snobs might be the worst variety, but it's impossible not to quietly admire the construction of their dickhead-filled ivory tower. There's nothing stopping me from just watching Citizen Kane if driven to the edge of madness by a film buff, but I'll never have the ability required to complete most games on the highest difficulty setting.
There isn't much merit in chasing the acceptance of bitter teenagers, but it's impossible to avoid the reality that hints of this mentality run right through gaming. It's telling that while in the UK most refer to "finishing" or "completing" a game, in the US the most common phrase is "beat". You didn't like the game? Oh. Did you beat it?
For reviewing most games, this isn't a problem. My experience with BioShock Infinite proved to be such a tedious drag that, in the end, I was happy to just bump it down to "easy". But when you've got games that are inherently designed to be very bloody hard, the situation gets complicated. Suddenly, you're back in the gallery, doubting your own intelligence, feeling anxious.
Because the problem is, there is a chance you might get it wrong. Clover Studio's masterful God Hand was described as "awful" by an IGN reviewer who clearly wasn't able to appreciate that while the game was tough as old dick, it was also an incredibly well-oiled machine. The niche community quietly exploded, with the critic involved left looking like a muppet.
Reviews are supposed to represent a widely diverse set of opinions, but it's an area in which games have yet to mature. Polar opinions are swiftly labelled right and wrong, and enforced with brutal pack mentality – as seen by the frankly insane reaction when Eurogamer had the audacity to give Uncharted 3 a mere 8/10.
But it's Dark Souls II that for me represents the clearest flaw in game review culture. A game that was knowingly very difficult, but also a direct sequel to one of the biggest cult hits we've seen in years.
A still from "Dark Souls II"
Because, fuck me, 2011's Dark Souls was a brilliant game. Blindly refusing to behave itself and play nicely with the other video games, it dished up a devilishly challenging adventure that ripped up the rulebook in a beautiful way.
To the outsider, games have evolved to become a practically indecipherable language. We hide secret buttons in our controllers and dismissively tell people to "press L3". We know that orange feathers bring people back to life. Gamers are impeccable encyclopaedias of mostly useless shit, and I cheerily take an odd sense of pride in that.
But the language we'd learned had no place in Dark Souls, a game that consistently defied expectations, frustrating many in the process. The "Prepare to Die" tagline was a warning that was fair, but it wasn't a game that was difficult in a traditional sense. Booze-frazzled neurons will scupper your chances of ever becoming a Call Of Duty champion, but Dark Souls is a game that anyone can beat providing they've got the patience and focus.
Dark Souls wasn't a game that felt like a game, and routinely punished you for treating it as such. It was strange, esoteric, unique, and magical. But the same can't be said for the sequel.
A disjointed cardboard world full of barely memorable characters. Locations stuck together in a seemingly random fashion, with an elevator at the top of a windmill taking you straight up to an iron castle submerged in lava. Fragments of interesting ideas teased loosely throughout and then abandoned with a shrug. Dark Souls II as an overall package felt like a present wrapped by a dog – a mess of visible tape failing to hold the whole thing together.
A still from "Dark Souls II"
The enemies you faced and the world you explored largely came across as trite, embracing the slightly lazy tropes that Dark Souls – and spiritual precursor Demon's Souls before it – had narrowly managed to evade. Dark Souls II wasn't a terrible game, but it was evidently no more than a decent one, serviceably jumping through hoops left behind by its predecessor.
Crucially though, it wasn't a game that was hard for the right reasons. Dark Souls II was a game that relied on a small handful of cheap tricks for when it wanted to kill you. There was no nuance or learning curve to the challenge you faced, just occasional moments when it decided it was time to hurl six monsters in and watch you crumble.
Despite evident differences between the two games, most reviews discuss them with identical language – as if taking the opportunity to talk about the virtues of the series, rather than the piece of work itself. Rallying against established critical darlings is a practice that gamers fiendishly relish, but strangely won't tolerate when it comes to reviews. Criticism after the hype dies is encouraged, but disrupting the wave of excitement won't do.
Piss On Your Peers isn't a game I aim to play, but I honestly can't think about Dark Souls II without wondering if those who showered it with praise found themselves mentally stuck in that gallery – surrounded by the pressure of chin-propping pricks while desperately trying to work out if what they were looking at was genuinely a bit shit, or if – horror beyond horrors – they simply didn't get it. In a world dominated by savvy, smarmy kids, admitting the latter is a bit of a death sentence.
You didn't like Dark Souls II? Oh. Did you finish it with one hand tied behind your back, and with a character that wasn't wearing any trousers?
No? Fuck off then, granddad.
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