Grid 2. (Screenshot via.)
Time is a big deal. Obviously. It's a purely theoretical mathematical abstraction, but it controls our entire lives; when we eat, when we sleep, how long we dedicate to streaming inane videos of Drake getting turned away from locker rooms while we should be working.
It's also a massive factor when it comes to deciding which new games title to invest in. How long is the campaign? What multiplayer options are there? And how long until the servers either melt down or come offline? What’s the downloadable content schedule? How much longer do I need to wait for this thing to install?
While the quality of some (mostly) single-player titles is measured by the value-for-money crowd in terms of hours logged over enjoyment gained, to me, a short, sharp and gleefully rollicking campaign is a real treat. I’ve not got the hours I once had. I’m not alone. Families happen. We don’t plan for them when we pick up our then-gleaming new consoles. But once attentions are consumed elsewhere, game time becomes something else: a luxury. Maximum results (pleasure!), minimal investment (time!). Check out two absolute jewels of the action genre from this current-cum-outgoing hardware cycle for an example of this relationship crystallised. The Darkness II emerged in early 2012 to little hype, but proved to be an intense, highly stylised supernatural first-person shooter, which flew by in something like six hours. You can get it for a fiver, and you really should.
From earlier this year: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, an epically adrenalised affair that nailed its USP inside the first few moments – you can slice loads of shit up, loads of times, at loads of angles – and then spent four-and-a-bit hours directing your cyborg ninja protagonist (via boss fights with tanks used as projectiles) to a climactic battle with a nanobot-ripped politician.
Again, over in a heartbeat compared to the Skyrims of this world, but deliriously enjoyable. Most quick-fix games aren’t so dazzling, though. Think of the endless iterations of FIFA and Pro Evo; for all their advances, still bound by age-old rules. Arcade-style fighters devoid of singular character – knuckle-dragging lunks that Street Fighter IV somehow didn’t completely exterminate. The vast majority of driving games on the market, most of which are re-treads of titles dating back entire hardware generations. Anyway, on to the reviews:
(Developed and published by Codemasters; available for PC, 360 and PS3)
A racer has been my go-to quick-fix this past month. Racers – the astounding Blur aside (you can get it for £8) – are rarely my kind of thing at all. Tweak this and upgrade that before you even put any pedal to any metal. Too many options and too many menus, not enough speed and not enough fun.
Grid 2 is something else, though: a racer that throws you right into the action. Load up and it’s go time. And you’ll crash. You’ll crash bad. Your car will look like it’s done 12 with Truckasaurus. But it won’t matter, just as the first, pre-game-proper race doesn’t. It’s a baptism of fire – the steepest learning curve, both for this game’s "Truefeel" handling system and for the fiendish AI of your rival racers, who will gently coerce your several horsepowers into a sturdy tree trunk without a second’s micro-processing.
It gets easier. Setting it to a less-punishing difficulty helps, but forgetting that option, hanging in there and letting Codemaster’s "Truefeel" system work its way into becoming a second-nature scheme produces results.
Tenth-place finishes become fifths, which turn to seconds. Eventually you’re stringing together impressive win streaks and it keeps you hooked. New courses open up, new challenges outside of straightforward bumper-to-bumper racing. There’s even a story. Sort of.
Grid 2’s premise is that you’re a hot-shot driver who’s been chosen as the face – not that you have one, of course – of the new World Series Racing brand. While it does have ESPN providing awkward, live-action interludes between seasons, none of Grid 2’s frills really matter. And they don’t have to, because Codemasters has delivered a gorgeous-looking, uniquely-handling driving game sitting somewhere between all-out arcade effort and its own, more simulation-like F1 series. (Mention must be made, too, of its brilliantly implemented "Flashback" feature, which allows you to rewind disasters and replay testing turns.)
It’s a game you can switch on and enjoy in short bursts. I know I have. It’s also a game, with its steadily progressing career mode and genuinely astounding looks, than can lock you in for the long-term. If you’ve an accommodating household, that is, or live out a severely lonely existence with only an Xbox, the Domino’s delivery-man and bookmarked porn for company.
Sometimes, though, a game comes along that you really have to give up the baby for. A game that sends you to bed four hours after your wife’s turned in and then keeps you awake another couple, thinking about what just played out. They’re blue moon releases, and 2013 already has BioShock Infinite. It also now has:
The Last Of Us.
(Developed by Naughty Dog; published by Sony; available for PS3 only)
(Image courtesy of Sony)
I’ll keep this brief, as the horse bolted weeks ago and the scores for this game have been counted and verified: a palpable, perhaps generation-defining hit. The Last Of Us is many things: a story of real tragedy set against a United States in a period of wild rebirth; an action-adventure that utilises tried-and-tested mechanics in an entirely instinctive manner; a high-tension heart-breaker that haunts the waking hours you’re not in front of it.
It’s just a game, sure. But the creeping, the shooting, the climbing, the basic puzzle solving, the graphic violence, the quick-time events, the zombie-like enemies and the tacked-on multiplayer… OK, so it’s all been done before – there’s nothing new here in any gameplay regard. But there was nothing new about the way BioShock Infinite played either, and the ending to that proved catalyst for enough blog entries to fill a utility belt loaded with terabyte drives. What The Last Of Us does, brilliantly, is make you care.
I won’t spoil anything here. Even setting the scene in the broadest terms carries the risk of giving essential storyline elements away. What you probably already know: a parasitic fungus, previously known to affect only insects, has crossed to humans and shafted civilisation good and proper. What you need to know: the character you play as the most, but not exclusively, is one of the finest-realised leading men of any work of fiction. Forget games alone. We’re talking cross-media, cross-platform – all time scenes.
(Image copyright of Sony)
This man, Joel, is more three-dimensional than those Rise Of The Robots avatars first seemed back in 1994. He’s an atypical hero: a not exactly fit, probably-50-something (based on the 20 years between prologue events and the main story) guy who, while strong enough to strangle the life out of a man, doesn’t stand up to bullets as well as the super-soldiers of gaming cliché. Actually, he’s not much of a hero at all. He’s a bad man who’s done bad things. Are we supposed to care about his losses? Sure. But Naughty Dog’s latest isn’t quite a redemption piece; Joel’s conscience never fully cleansed.
Ellie – Joel’s 14-year-old companion, and briefly a player-controlled character – is the perfect foil to her bottle-it-up grump of a guardian. She’s candid, unafraid of embarrassment and equally wonderfully realised. The voice acting is marvellous – Troy Baker, also Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, and Ashley Johnson convey a true sense of camaraderie through chaos as Joel and Ellie respectively. But these actors are also behind the motion capturing for their roles, and this additional level of interaction lends this game’s "quieter" moments of narrative-progressing action near-unprecedented gravitas.
(Image copyright of Sony)
For The Last Of Us, evenings are never long enough. Time ticks too quickly. The enemy isn’t the infected masses who range from angry men with a little spittle on their lips to blind, zombie-like bastards with bracket-fungus faces and one-hit kill credentials. The enemy is the clock on your TV, on your PS3. The one that says, "You last got up from the sofa before BBC Three started." The one that screams, "Go to bed now, you’ve got work in six hours."
But forget that. I’m taking control of time back for this one. When I eat. When I sleep. When I call in sick.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @MikeDiver
Previously – The War of the Games Consoles Is Back On