I have been on a backlog binge recently. Games that I missed the first time around, I’ve been rooting out copies and giving them a try. A lot of these games are outside of my usual genres, but have something that brought it to my attention.
IL2-Sturmovik: Birds Of Preyis a WW2 flight simulation that subtly evokes themes common in Russian literature and film. Enslaved: Odyssey To The Westis a western adaptation of an 16th century Chinese text with motion-capture courtesy of Andy Serkis and was written by Alex Garland (of Ex Machina fame). And Shadows Of The Damnedis a puerile and phallus-infused grindhouse romp through hell from legendary creators Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka.
Following the running theme of games with confusingly long titles, recently I’ve been playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The reason I became interested in playing El Shaddai is that it is an adaptation of the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text not part of biblical canon and that it was infused with anime visuals. It sounds like an fun prospect.
El Shaddai is an odd duck.
You play Enoch, a human and scribe of Heaven, sent down to Earth to capture the souls of fallen angels. If he fails then the archangels have permission to send a great flood and wipe away the world.
Aiding Enoch is the archangel Lucifel who follows along and calls God on his mobile phone to report Enoch’s progress. Oh, and he wears skinny black jeans and snaps his fingers with the frequency of a Broadway actor on opening night (he only snaps with his left hand, which is a neat touch given his name). He also rides a motorbike and constantly breaks the fourth wall.
An example of the latter is where he at one point rewinds time, but ends up going so far back that you get booted to the main menu and have to hit the start button again. Another is when he tells the PLAYER, “You can clear this in seven hours, if you are good enough,” (34:00) which is literally just under the standard play-length of the game
Enoch must make his way through the different realms to take on the fallen angels one at a time. Each realm has a different art style; the first is a cave rave with chanting hordes and psychedelic light shows. Another is filled with soft colours and fluffy clouds. Another seems to be influenced by Tron and another is a 70s glam rock concert complete with back-up dancers.
It gets even weirder when you finish some levels by being eaten whole by a Nephilim; human/angel crossbreeds that roam the land eating each other and destroying the landscape. I would call it Gilliam-esque but even Monty Python wouldn’t think up anything this brazenly ludicrous.
It is full of themes to deconstruct; the presence of religion, the nature of silent protagonists, or directionless combat. But let’s get away from those heavy topics and onto something a bit more artistic.
Today I want to talk about one of the aspects that made El Shaddai stand out from the other games I’m playing; the use of the camera.
Double Exposure – The Use Of Camera Techniques in El Shaddai
El Shaddai doesn’t give the player any control over the camera. This usually proves a detriment to player engagement, leading to annoyance at only having a certain degree of gameplay to view. But the limitations give El Shaddai a unique look, one that couldn’t be found in traditional camera controls.
El Shaddai is a mix of genres, mainly hack’n’slash and a third person platformer. Enoch runs through the realms, navigating pathways and pitfalls, as well as taking on hordes of demons, martyrs and, erm…heavily armoured giant pigs.
Like I said, odd duck.
Most hack’n’slashers like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have a camera that hangs back; with so many enemies on screen you need to keep track of all of them. If the camera is too close to the action then it can cause problems, with the player getting tagged by enemies they were unaware of.
El Shaddai during its hack’n’slash sections draws the camera back until the characters are incredibly small in the frame. While being in-keeping with the genre, it also lends thematic resonance. Enoch is a human, not a omni-competent world-shattering entity like the archangels are shown to be (that is when they aren’t being portrayed as talking swans, which is a good 97% of the game. Yeah, have you gathered how weird this game is yet?) The enemies and the landscape dwarf Enoch, as he fights against a world that seems too big to comprehend.
The hack’n’slash elements are structured in El Shaddai. As Enoch runs along he will come across a circular arena and the enemies will enter into combat. Nearly every encounter works like this, which is understandable. The arena gives the player a safe space to fight without having the fear of falling off the map.
In the boss battles with some the fallen angels such as Sariel, Azazel, and Armaros, they shape-shift into other forms (Sariel becomes a giant bat, Azazel becomes a Locust-like insect and Armaros transforms into some weird bug/whale/dinosaur/Sith lord hybrid, that is as simple as I can describe it).
When these forms appear, the camera shifts downwards, artificially making their scale appear larger. During boss fights, the fallen angel is the only enemy, allowing the fixed camera to not be intrusive. As soon as regular enemies appear, the camera moves higher to accommodate the player.
Once these combat sections are done, the game turns back into a platformer and changes its camera subtly. It moves more into a birds-eye view to aid jumping, especially since 3D platforming doesn’t have the precision of its 2D cousin. It is a light touch and is a smooth transition, accommodating for the dual gameplay but without large changes in gameplay or design.
A lot of the time during gameplay the player is running on a singular path, making their way through the expansive locations. The gameplay is predominately 3D, but sometimes the camera becomes stationery, morphing gameplay from 3D to 2D and back again. It creates these beautiful sequences that feel epic in their scope despite how limited they are.
Certain sections of gameplay will only be 2D, but these are usually for narrative reasons. The first section has us admiring a stained-glass window of the archangels. As the silhouette of Enoch climbs upwards, we are treated to beautiful renditions of Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel (who in this interpretation uses female pronouns, an interesting change from biblical tradition). This sequence is used to set up these characters and to inform the player that they are by your side during the adventure.
The second time the game uses this technique is after Enoch wakes from his Indecision after he journeyed into Purgatory. Once his soul is purified, Enoch awakens and goes to find Nanna, a little girl who helped guide him through a few of the realms. During his time out, she has grown up and has led a revolt against the fallen angels.
As Enoch runs along the 2D plain, the background shows a silhouette of Nanna fighting the fallen angel Ezekiel, the latter besting the former. The sequence is to illustrate how long Enoch’s journey has been and his desperation to help Nanna against the Fallen Angels.
During these cases, El Shaddai almost feels like an endless runner, focussing more on jumping pitfalls than actually changing direction or speed. It also brings you into the run at a pace, which I love. In certain games they’ll be a “run away from the bad guys/object” segment. Games like Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, even L.A. Noire has a sequence like this.
El Shaddai has these running sequences, but the first few seconds of gameplay already have Enoch running away. It helps guide the player back into the action without losing a sense of flow.
Despite the camera moving all around the environment, El Shaddai always highlights which way you have to go to progress the story through. The camera guides your vision, unobtrusively showing us the way without a mere hint of an objective marker. There are only a few times El Shaddai breaks this rule, but all in service of gameplay.
The first time I realised it was just before Enoch heads into Ezekiel’s realm, the second of the Fallen Angels (9:04). Enoch is heading down a corridor before it is revealed that it is opening up. There is no floor beyond the corridor, only empty space.
A faint outline can be seen outside, but nothing concrete. In essence you are taking a leap of faith. When you do take the leap, the screen blooms and a staircase is revealed where the faint outline was. Much like the walkway at the end of Indiana Jones 3, the path is only fully visible once the player makes that leap and is both stylistically and thematically fitting. The game does this a few times during important moments, where the art will slightly obscure the path to allow those moments of revelation to the player.
Many games try and create a world, but only a few capture an excellent sense of location and space in their camera movements. It is something that Japanese games work well with. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Shadow Of The Colossus, 3D Mario games, they are very precise on shot placement and movement in gameplay.
That is not to say Western developers don’t also use these techniques. Gone Home’s use of first-person camera and lighting definitely created a sense of foreboding during gameplay. The original Alone In The Dark is credited with inspiring Silent Hill‘s and Resident Evil‘s camera techniques. Quantic Dream does everything in their power to create cinematic shots in their games. And Ready At Dawn mimicked lens focus and aspect ratios for their launch title The Order: 1886.
Another example may be Uncharted 3 during its chases sequences.
Looking at this sequence in Yemen, the camera moves with the action; zooming, focussing, and wiping to aid player progression.
When main character Nathan Drake and bad guy Talbot are inside, the camera zooms closer in, when they are running on the rooftops the camera heads into more of a birds-eye view to help jumping. My favourite moments are in changes of direction.
Similar to how film editors “wipe” the screen during long takes, Uncharted 3 will make these small adjustments to aid players, such as Nathan banging into walls or being hit by a door (4:23, 5:30, and 6:56).
Control is taken away for a second, the camera shifts where it needs to be (the new direction the player is moving) and then control is given back. It is a smooth transition yet it is distinct; players know that when the camera resets to a certain distance, they are back in control.
Cinematography is alive and well in games and when thought is given to how it is used, a slight camera change can make an intense action set piece more thrilling and enjoyable than it would with a bog-standard third-person view.
An example might be the Skate series. The major skating series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, uses a standard camera to aid traversal and give the player a sense of spatial awareness when moving. Skate on the other hand brings the camera lower, almost touching the ground. This is to mimic home-made skating videos, and somehow makes Skate feel richer, even if the camera can sometimes obscure geography.
With games being able to perform angles and shots that are almost impossible in film, it is always interesting to see where the format will go.
A sense of character is one of the things that I look for when playing a game. I play games mainly for the story and a large part of that is the character. If we can’t get emotionally attached to the protagonist, it can create a disconnect between them and us. I have stopped playing games because I can’t see or connect to the main character’s motivation.
Games are an interesting medium to view characters due to player input. Can a character be labeled a badass secret agent if he has trouble navigating tables? In this feature I wanted to zone in on an aspect that can highlight character traits, that being the animation.
Small animations can help fill a character backstory or tell us something about their personality, usually without an ounce of dialogue. To modify an old saying, “A picture paints a thousands words. And an animation at 60FPS conveys a book.”
The inspiration behind this post was the animation of Doom Guy from 2016’s Doom. His animations are intentional. The way he nonchalantly pushes computer screens with vital intelligence on them aside or smashes scientifically important power sources in direct violation of orders shows so much of his personality, all without ever seeing his reactions (here is a video by critic Jim Sterling highlighting these points).
An example of an accidental animation could be how Ned Luke, the actor who plays Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto V, moves during gameplay. Luke is deaf in his right ear and in cutscenes he will move to his right if someone is talking to him. This can be seen as a happy accident as it fills in Michael’s backstory. Being partially deaf could be an indication of him being close to guns for a portion of his life (for example, the entire opening of GTAV). Michael was also meant to be slower than the other playable characters Trevor and Franklin, so Luke put on weight for his motion-capture.
So here are five animations that give us a peek at a character’s personality. These aren’t in any ranking, but just five from my some of my favorite games.
Cortez’s Gun Spin in Timesplitters: Future Perfect
When a character picked up a gun in the first two Timesplitters games it would simply pop up on screen. That changed in the third entry, where each weapon had an equipping animation.
The animation I want to highlight is in the third game, at the very start of the second level. Main character Sgt. Cortez is sent back in time to 1924 and teams up with WW1 veteran Captain Ash to retake a Scottish island from some vaguely foreign types. After landing on the shores of the island, Ash gives Cortez a Luger and the duo head off.
When control is given back to the player, Cortez equips the gun and spins it like a Wild West gunslinger.
We’ve seen in the previous mission that Cortez is kind of a super soldier; crashing his spaceship in the middle of a battle zone, holding off Splitter charges singlehandedly, and sniping enemies from impossible distances. But throughout the story he shows a goofier side; fan-boying over his future self, dancing with the R110 war robot, and constantly saying his catchphrase, “Time to Split!” which everyone but him thinks is incredibly uncool.
The gun spin is a distillation of these two traits. It shows his “cool factor” off by being able to pull off the move, but also shows his incredible dorky side that he would do it, instead of just lock and load the gun like very other pistol in the game.
(Start at 2:11)
Haytham Moving Through The Audience in Assassin’s Creed 3
We start AC3 playing as Templar Agent Haytham Kenway on a mission in the Theatre Royal in London. He has to assassinate a British Assassin and steal the First Civilization Medallion that said target keeps around his neck.
It is a great opening to the game and gets us invested in the character. Haytham sits down in the auditorium with Templar Master Reginald Birch as they talk about the performance that night. During his dialogue with Birch, as well as with the Assassin Miko, Haytham displays a veneer of civility, a quintessential Britishness.
After receiving his mission to kill Miko, Haytham starts to make his way past the audience in the auditorium row. As he goes, Haytham whispers out apologies, “A thousand pardons…my apologies…”
One audience member decides to stand up to allow Haytham to pass by. WHAM! Haytham roughly pushes the man back down into his seat and continues moving through the audience. It is such a small animation, but the ferocity and power behind the gesture shows there is much more behind the warm front that Haytham puts on when speaking.
(Start at 2:00)
The Scarecrow’s Running Animation in Lego Batman: The Videogame
The great thing about the Lego games in their infancy is they had to communicate plot points entirely through gestures. While I’m not bashing the later games in the series, it was hilarious to see them riff on Indiana Jones and Star Wars in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (especially in Episodes IV-VI, with scenes like this 3:54-4:25).
When creating the first Lego Batman game, the folks over at Travellers Tales created their own plots. These stories made allusions to the films, television shows, and comics, but were mainly their own thing. While they have the building blocks (aha!) of the characters, they need to transpose them to the Lego world. So let’s look at Scarecrow.
The major factor in Scarecrow’s run is his arms. When Batman runs, his arms pump up and down to indicate his strength and stamina. When Poison Ivy runs, her arms sway, demonstrating a delicate side. When Scarecrow runs, he holds his arms out in front of him, as if he were a frightening monster chasing someone.
His shoulders bunch up as he runs and there is a definite swing to his movements. The former is indicative of his desire to reach forward and catch whoever he may be chasing, the latter shows that he having fun and delighted that he is chasing some poor, frightened citizen.
Scarecrow doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire game, yet he manages to portray a multi-faceted personality through his over-acted run.
(Start at 3:34)
Larson Conway in Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Switching up the structure here, as this is an enemy rather than a playable character. Yet the animations portray a very layered individual.
We can tell from the start of TR: Anniversary that heroine Lara Croft and anti-hero Larson Conway know each other. The two are on first name terms and have some flirtatious banter (1:34). This banter is important because it feeds into Larson’s later fight animations.
When the two square up against each other, Larson declares he “…prefers a more hands-on approach.” He leaps at Lara and she fends him off using her fists. As Lara continues to best him, Larson becomes more irate until he finally pulls out his gun. The fight takes place during a quick time event and Larson only draws his gun on the final button press.
During another quick time event involving all of the scheming bad guys, Larson doesn’t shoot at Lara, instead trying to strike her with his gun (18:27).
Designer Toby Gard revealed in the developer commentary that Larson has a soft spot for Lara (56:13). You can see this in the animation. He never tries to kill her, instead going for non-lethal attacks and only pulling out a gun when she does the same to him. When she flees during the aforementioned quick time event, he intentionally pushes away other bad guys and aims his shot wayward (18:42).
They are small tweaks but create a character that isn’t a straight-up bad guy, which gives his death at Lara’s hands later in the game a sense of pathos.
Captain Walker’s Changing Animations in Spec Ops: The Line
I love Spec Ops: The Line partly because it is a great deconstruction of the art form as well as being a fun “tactical” shooter.
I’ve talked about how the visual design of Walker changes through the course of the narrative with his design becoming less and less human with each important moment within the story. But this decline is also featured in the audio clips and the animations.
At the start Walker and his team are professional; knocking people unconscious with either the butt of their rifle or with a swift punch/karate chop. But as Walker’s mind slowly descends into insanity, his animations become more violent.
His rifle strikes become longer and more sadistic. He jumps on fallen enemies and gouges at their eyes with his fingernails. He starts breaking necks with ferocity but also indifference, doing so without a second’s hesitation. And when he has finally snapped, Walker drops all pretence of professionalism and starts executing unarmed soldiers with a gunshot to the head.
The cool thing is that most of these are hidden due to player choice. While the player will have to take on close range enemies it is entirely possible that a player could shoot them and not have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The developers could have just had one or two repeated animations, but decided to have a variety with the possibility that a player would never see their hard work.
Despite the optional aspect, there is one “mandatory” execution in the twelfth chapter (5:28). This helps show the descent into primitive violence without taking control away from the player. In the sequence, Walker ziplines between buildings and lands on a soldier. While it is possible to shoot him, the “execute” button flashes up. If the player chooses execute then Walker goes crazy, smashing the soldier’s head in with his rifle, much to the shock of his sidekicks Adams and Lugo.
And just like the character design and voice barks, the change in animation is seamless. This slow but steady change makes the game that much richer and expresses Walker’s character excellently.
(Start at 3:13)
There are a series of smaller animations that are also great examples of character backstory. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of a variety of animations. The main character James Sunderland has the habit of looking down when people are talking to him, indicative of a feeling of shame or embarrassment. He also has the habit of touching his head when remembering, as pointed out by the YouTube channel The Gaming Muse; I’ll let them explain the reason behind the animation.
Silent Hill 2’s creature animations are also fascinating. Art Director Masahiro Ito said his, “…basic idea for creating the monsters…was to give them a human aspect…then I proceeded to undermine this human aspect.” (16:24). He based the movements on, “…drunk people or the tentative walk of a young child.” (17:19). This is reflective of the idea of the “Unheimlich”, a Freudian concept of something being both familiar and unknown, and is used constantly in horror games and films to create a sense of unease.
The recent Splinter Cell games also have some small animations that lent to the character. In the fifth entry, Conviction, secret agent Sam Fisher has gone rogue, trying to find his daughter’s killer. His hand-to-hand animations are incredibly violent, using pianos, urinals, and even flag poles to interrogate enemies. Much like Walker in Spec Ops, this shows how far the former spy has fallen, but also shows how far he would go to find out what happened to his family.
Another small set of animations that caught my eye were the idle animations of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Part of the appeal of MUA is creating your own four-person squad of heroes from Marvel Comics. When you choose one from the Heroes Gallery, the hero has a ‘move’. Iron Man powers up his suit, Captain America salutes, Human Torch fixes his hair, Luke Cage cracks his knuckles, Spiderman does the “Spider-Man Crouch”, Deadpool spins his guns like Cortez, it goes on and on. Each tiny move tells us all we need to know to get a general idea on the character without learning their backstory.
Talking about how animations feed into characters is a simple idea and I’m definitely not the first to talk about it. I just find it fascinating that entire characters can be found in the smallest movements. That we can find meaning in a wave of a hand, the twinge of a smile, or the placement of a foot.
Games are an outlet for our sometimes drab and dreary lives. The stories and locations that video games transport us to can give us a taste of a life different from ours.
Being able to travel across the entirety of the USA in a muscle car, keeping the gas pedal to the tarmac, while an army of pursuing police cars grows in your rear-view mirror is something that I can’t claim to have done in real life. But for nearly twenty years I’ve been doing it in several games. One stands out however, for being exactly twenty years old in 2019. That game is Driver.
And as it has been two decades since the original entry was released, I thought a deconstruction was due. Does Driver still hold up?
Reflections In The Car Mirror – A Look Back At Driver
Part I: First Gear – Pre-Production
During the late 90s, driving games had been on a string of hits. Every style was catered for; Gran Turismo was simulation, Need For Speed brought underground drag racing, and SF: Rush brought arcade physics and gameplay to home consoles.
During the latter half of the decade, two British teams were working on games with a heavy emphasis on driving, both with a distinctly criminal tone to them. One was DMA Design, who released crime simulator Grand Theft Auto in 1997. With the ability to drive and steal motor vehicles and partake in joyriding and hit-and-runs, the game was blasted by moral guardians and even debated in the House of Lords to be refused classification.
The other game, by Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive also had shades of reckless driving, but had a more cinematic angle to its freewheeling antics rather than the psychotic gameplay of GTA. Reflections were a well-known studio with several successes under their belt including Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby. The latter game and its sequel were pioneers of 3D driving and in Reflections own words were, “Hailed as a significant step forward…” (1999, para. 5), with both games selling over a million copies each.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto, Reflections saw an opportunity. One of the drawbacks of the GTA series in its infancy was the top-down camera, limiting the action to the 2D plain. The team at Reflections had a thought; could the open-world of GTA be married to the 3D design and driving mechanics of Destruction Derby?
Reflections co-founder Martin Edmondson was a fan of car chase films, stating in an interview with gamesindustry.biz that,
“…one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema…was Walter Hill’s The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.” (2011, Meer).
Edmondson was passionate about the idea and designed Driver to be a reflection (aha!) of his personal love of car chase movies. In the same interview, Edmondson highlighted that was the feeling that the team was aiming for,
“There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or attempts to nail the car chase environment, there really isn’t anything out there. I’m talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.” (2011, Meer).
So the team got to work on developing a new title. The game would evoke the feel of the classic car chase films of the 60s and 70s while marrying it to the 3D work of their previous titles and the open-world aspect that was taking the industry by storm.
According to then Project Manager Gareth Edmondson (brother of Martin) it was a tough production cycle as,
“…we were reinventing gameplay technology in many new ways. It was the first game to; tackle the free-roaming city environment; re-create an entirely new vehicle-destruction system, and develop an entirely new in-game AI system.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 3).
But all that hard worked paid off. Two and half years after the release of Grant Theft Auto, Driver released to the public on PC and PSOne.
Part II: Five Wheels & An Engine – Controls and Gameplay
It is interesting that if you updated Driver’s graphics it could stand toe-to-toe with any open-world game with driving segments.
While the controls have some kinks (Triangle as handbrake is always a little hard to perform as it is further away than X, the accelerate button) it is a solid basis and is intuitive enough that after a few missions you have mastered it. This was Reflections intention, with the original website for Driver stating, “[Our] titles can be picked up and played instantly by a novice yet provide a tough enough challenge for experienced players.” (1999, para. 12).
X is accelerate, Square is brake/reverse, Triangle is handbrake, L2/R2 are camera controls, and the directional arrows or analog stick are for control, all pretty standard stuff. But Driver has a few unique tricks under its bonnet.
Circle is burnout, which spins your wheels to build up speed. R1 is a horn, seemingly to get cars in front of you to move lanes, although on my playthrough I didn’t see a notable difference of cars getting out of the way. But the one new button that I haven’t seen anywhere else is L1, which locks your wheels to whatever side you press the directional arrows or stick. This button is integral to many of the evasive and film-worthy moves that you can pull off such as drifting and the beautiful 180 Reverse. It is also needed as most of the cars in the game have a habit to understeer, so having a button that can flick the back wheels out helps in certain cornering situations.
And that is pretty much it.
The player car has two bars at the top of the screen, one for “Damage” and the other for “Felony”. Damage is straightforward. Every time your prang your car the bar fills up until the car is busted and you fail whatever mission you were playing.
Felony applies to any laws broken in front of a police vehicle. Burnouts, running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, being a public menace, and going over the speed limit (the latter is only available in the PC version) in view of a police officer will start to fill up your Felony bar. Luckily you can’t kill any pedestrians when driving as each one seems to be related to The Flash and can zip out of the way a second before you flatten them. It is a nice addition after the wanton rampages of Grand Theft Auto.
With more infractions the Felony bar continues to fill and more police pile in, chasing you and setting up roadblocks. They hunt you down with the ruthlessness of a tiger but the intelligence of a goldfish. With some chases having upwards of ten police cars, their AI is neutered, making them come at you like the Keystone cops (hey, film reference!). Police cars will fly right by you, ping themselves off geometry, or Austin Powers themselves against lampposts and garbage bins.
The main obstacle you’ll come across in the game is the police. Or rival mobsters. Or the FBI. Or just anyone in a car that is gunning for you. Most rival cars are faster than yours, meaning that they can easily catch you and appear constantly in your back mirror. Luckily a lot of them are weaker than your car, meaning they will get damaged quicker and can be dispatched with relative ease. This is obviously done with the intention to keep the tension high while also being able to shake off your pursuers. The game does also have a selectable difficulty level, allowing players to decide their level of challenge.
Part III: Manual or Automatic? – Game Modes
Speaking of drifting and the 180 Reverse, before you start the narrative you have to pass “The Interview”. Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from 1976’s The Driver, the player must show off their driving skills to some prospective clients in a parking garage.
This mission is infamous for being incredibly difficult; with a sixty-second time limit and only allowing four “penalties” (crashing your car into objects), many players never actually saw the rest of the game because of this “tutorial”. There is a video on the main menu that tells the player the inputs to perform the moves, but isn’t exactly intuitive.
The narrative (known as Undercover) is the meat of the game. It features several types of driving missions; pursuit, evade, rampage, every single idea you could have about driving a car around a city, Driver probably has it. That does cause a problem in that a lot of the missions have the same objectives, just starting at different ends of the map. This repetitive nature does serve a purpose though, as will be highlighted in Part IV.
Alongside the narrative are a collection of mini games. There are time trials, checkpoint hits, pursuit, getaway, and survival (a variant horde mode where the police will never stop pursuing you). While many are similar to scenarios that the player will perform in Undercover, these are bite-size gameplay modes that provide their own unique fun.
There is also the Take A Ride mode. This is essentially a free roam option, with the player dropped into the map with no restrictions. I bet a lot of memories of this game are based in this mode, featuring high-octane chases and crazy collisions without a time limit to ruin a player’s fun. The player can visit any of the locations in free roam, but must unlock them in the narrative first, with the same being true for the mini games as well. The first two cities are open from the start though, allowing for reckless fun even if you can’t beat The Interview.
Alongside the game modes was a mechanic that elevated the cinematic design that Martin Edmondson wanted from Driver. At any time during the game the player can hit pause and enter the Director Mode. Said mode plays the entirety of the gameplay up to that moment and gives the player control over a slew of camera angles and techniques, letting players create exciting short movies of their car chases. It is quietly revolutionary and predates things like Machinima and sharing/streaming options that have become a major force within the industry.
Part IV: Does Anyone Have A Map? – The Cities and Roads
Driver takes place across four cities from all corners of the United States. The cities are Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as a small track in the desert (possibly outside Las Vegas?). There is also a secret city, Newcastle (where Reflections are based) that can be unlocked using cheats and also viewed on the credits. Each city has a day/night variation (except L.A.) and have several weather effects such as rain and snow.
The cities are all distinct from one another, with geography that helps set up the possibility of great movie-esque chases. Miami has wide-open roads for four lane drifts, San Francisco has steep hills to catch some air while speeding, L.A. has long straights that are perfect for police pursuits, and New York has tight-knit neighbourhoods that require excellent use of slaloming. Each city has its own car with unique traits, be it having greater speed or greater traction. While it could be annoying to not be able to choose your favourite car, limiting us to a single vehicle allows you to get to grips with its individual quirks.
Each city is rather small compared to today’s MAHOOSIVE open-worlds (due to obvious memory issues). I timed a drive from one side to the other and it took roughly two minutes to go from point to point on each map. But the smaller intimate design is an asset to the game. With a tight control over player movement, it means that the map gets imprinted on our memory, allowing for quicker recognition and a better game experience, where we know which roads link together rather than relying on the mini map. This is heightened by the fact that a lot of the back streets and alleys aren’t on the mini map. We have to use our minds and instincts rather than the handy GPS in the corner.
Just like using one car per location, the game inadvertently teaches us by dropping us in the deep end. Even just basic map knowledge and semi-competent car control allows for easier getaways and it is more rewarding when you remember which way gives you the best advantage because you know about it, rather than a shiny arrow telling you the way to go.
That’s why the greatest asset to the open-world is the Take A Ride function. Being able to free-roam the map at any point without a time limit holding you back helps novice drivers figure out the basics and lets experienced drivers search for shortcuts to aid in the missions.
Part V: Start From The Top – The Narrative & Characters
Driver does have a narrative, but to call it threadbare is almost a compliment in how non-existent the storyline is.
Inspired by the same car chase films that gave birth to the gameplay, Driver follows NYPD officer John Tanner as he is drafted to go undercover. His target is the powerful and wealthy Castaldi crime family who has set up operations in Miami. Soon the story will take Tanner to different cities all across the USA in a bid to stop the Castaldi family from carrying out a series of high-profile assassinations, culminating in an attempt on the President Of The United States’ life.
Tanner’s backstory is that before he became a police officer he was a racing champion. This is referenced through the story with criminals recognising him from his track days as well as the Police Lieutenant who recruits Tanner saying he is the best driver on the force. That’s pretty much all we get on the man.
Tanner’s dialogue doesn’t give us any hints to his personality either. I would be surprised if his dialogue passes the twenty-word mark from start to finish. It seems the cars we drive have more personality than the protagonist. Sure, he fits the mould of a silent badass (like most great car chase films) and he shows his character through his driving, but it would be nice to learn a little more about the person we are playing as.
Tanner heads to Miami and sets himself up as a wheelman for hire. The game then puts you in Tanner’s spartan apartment, with nothing but a TV and VCR, a toolbox, and an answering machine. Tanner’s apartment is the main menu with each object as a category (VCR is save, toolbox is options, door is quit, and the car keys is Take A Ride). It is a fun concept and cool that the layout changes when the game changes city.
The answering machine is the level select. You listen through messages left by prospective clients in need of your particular driving skills and accept jobs. At the start there is only one message waiting for you, but as you rise through the ranks you will get calls from other criminals in need of your expertise.
It is a limited choice system with only a few branches, but broad enough that a player can have a different experience on a second playthrough. Some missions give a deeper intrigue into the conspiracy at the heart of the story and Driver even has multiple endings depending on the missions that you’ve taken, with distinctly “good” and “bad” endings. The answering machine also houses a few Easter eggs such as repeated wrong numbers.
The game is interspersed with cutscenes. The majority of these are used to set up missions or to help us switch cities. It is apparent that the team were mastering character models, as most walk ramrod straight, with still frames being used when characters are on phones. But there is a charm to it, an obvious want rather than a need. It would have been easy to have talking cars and buildings (much like the more recent Crash Time/Cobra 11 series), but the team went and built over half an hour of cutscenes with character models and camera angles that weren’t needed in the base game.
The voices are delightfully hammy, giving off that 70s grindhouse feel of amateur filmmakers and actors producing a film. The script also has inflections of films from the era, with smooth-talking hustlers, high-pitched squealers, and smoky-voiced police chiefs. These inflections can inadvertently make it hard to understand certain mission briefings, as characters are using 70s slang that hasn’t carried over to the modern day. But since most missions resort to driving fast, we are rarely stuck as what to do.
As mentioned in Part III, the gameplay doesn’t have many variations, only having a few unique missions due to non-standard cars or scenarios. These include levels such as chasing a cable car/yacht, protecting a shipment of guns in a pick-up truck, or escaping an assassination attempt with the President Of The United States. But the team knew that the missions and storyline weren’t the best. In a Developer Diary Interview with GameSpot during the development of Driver: Parallel Lines, original Project Manager Gareth Edmondson said,
“…we were ultimately disappointed in the storyline overall, and we believed the mission design to be weak because it didn’t support the story very well.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 4).
That narrative may have been weak, but it served its purpose. It got us out into the world that Reflections had created and from there they could only go up. And despite the sometimes ropey presentation, there is definitely an attempt at cinematic flair to some shots.
Despite releasing at the tail end of the PSOne development cycle, the game was massive, spawning a sequel in 2000 named Driver 2: Back On The Streets/The Wheelman Is Back.
Reflections spent only fourteen months on the sequel (Edmondson, 2006, para.5) using the same tech but tweaking it to add more complex road structures and curved objects. The open-ended story was dropped for a more linear structure, with a stronger narrative throughout. The player could also get out of their car and hijack other vehicles around the city, although there was still no interaction besides cars.
Reflections pushed the aging console to its breaking point, trying to squeeze every ounce of processing power into Driver 2. This proved a detriment however with numerous bugs and framerate issues plaguing the entry.
Driver 2 was released just after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. A year later, DMA Design, now renamed Rockstar North, released Grand Theft Auto 3 to the public.
Taking the open world that Driver had popularised, GTAIII took things even further, with out-of-car and shooting sections, allowing player to cause havoc and play at their own pace. GTA even started poking fun at Driver, with missions in both III (GTA Series Videos, 2009) and its sequel Vice City (SebyGaming, 2016) allowing players to kill an undercover cop/driver named Tanner. In the sequel, San Andreas, a rival gangster plays a game made by “Refractions” and says, “Tanner, you suck ass.” (GTA Series Videos, 2010).
With GTA taking the spotlight, Reflections tried to step up their game. The third entry (stylised as Driv3r) tried to tell a sprawling crime tale with several cities, vehicles, and on-foot segments, but came up weak against Rockstar’s efforts. Driv3r was also mired in controversy before it launched, with exclusive access given in exchange for perfect review scores. Driver: Parallel Lines followed up in 2006, fixing many of Driv3r’s problems but feeling more and more like a Rockstar knock-off.
In late 2006, publisher Atari sold Reflections to Ubisoft. After developing a sequel to Parallel Lines, Driver 76, which was released for the fledgling PSP, the series would go dormant for a few years.
It took until 2011 for the series, and protagonist John Tanner, to come back in Driver: San Francisco. With a huge city and a new mechanic called “Shift” allowing players to move seamlessly between cars (alleviating any on-foot gameplay), the series seemed to be revived. The notorious garage tutorial of Driver was even remade in San Francisco, unlocked when a player finds a DeLorean and reaches 88mph (ha, more film references!).
Since 2011, there have been a few rumours but no official moves on the Driver series, despite a few mobile and handheld games. San Francisco was a nice return to form and if it is sadly the last we see of the series, then it means it goes out on a high.
Part VII: Park it Right Here – Conclusion
Driver was one of the first games I remember playing as a child. I didn’t play the story at all, just Take A Ride. So when I decided to pick up the game twenty years after it was published, I was essentially doing a blind playthrough.
The graphics are obviously a sore point. The draw distance isn’t the best and the environments and cars are blocky boxes. You have to look at it when it came out. This was revolutionary design in 1999, giving the small sandbox genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
The story isn’t exactly presented well, but it does the job fine. As I said previously, it gets us into the cities and into the gameplay with little fanfare. It is kind of refreshing after playing games like Detroit: Become Human and The Pillars Of The Earth (both fantastic games in their own right) that Driver gets straight into gameplay without spending minutes at a time in cutscenes.
Controls are fine. It is a strange mix of sim and arcade, but they are easy to learn. Things like the L1 button were completely new to me and it became invaluable during my playthrough. Even Triangle became intuitive after a while. It caused problems when going back to open-world games on my PS4, as most controllers nowadays use the L2/R2 configuration for accelerate and brake. It led to moments where I would accidentally throw myself out of speeding cars because I mistakenly pressed Triangle or Square.
Driver is a curio, maybe one for driving enthusiasts or for those yearning for nostalgic days of the late 90s. It even became available on the PS Now online service for a short time for less than two quid.
And there is really nothing like it. I bought my copy after watching a slew of car chase films, notably Drive, which game critic Keith Stuart highlighted as a film taking from games, “…I do not believe that film would look the way it does if it wasn’t for Grand Theft Auto…” (Ikoc Voice, 2016).
Just like Martin Edmondson said, there isn’t a game that fully captures a real movie-esque chase scene. The only one that comes close is Driver.
And that means it deserves to be remembered and to be played.
In my last article I wrote about the opening of Battlefield V. I hadn’t completed the campaign at the time of publishing, just wanting a first snapshot of my feelings. I was a little unimpressed, feeling that BFV had lost the spark that BF1 had due to the latter’s setting and time period.
So with a hint more apprehension I booted up the narrative proper.
And damn, I was hooked. I had missed out on an excellent addition to the opening. So I needed to follow up.
I adore Battlefield V’s campaign and it fixes the small problems I had with Battlefield 1’s (also stellar) campaign. My fears of the War Stories not comparing to BF1 were completely unfounded. The dialogue, performance, and design are of the highest quality (DICE always makes things looks pretty), with each story having a different tone yet all to feeding into one another.
BFV continues where BF1 started (quite literally with the still that opens the game). It features the lesser-known stories filled with misfits and malcontents, the people usually not remembered in sanitised history books. I was particularly looking forward to story featuring the young female resistance fighter in Norway, echoing the story of the female Bedouin fighter from BF1.
It was nice that after the bombastic opening that the game settled back into a groove, allowing the player to approach how they wanted. It can be easy to guide the player through a linear story progression and keep up that cinematic edge (I love Remember Me), but having the player tackle each task how they want fits for a series like Battlefield (obviously gearing up for the multiplayer). Compared to the limited open-ended sections in BF1, nearly every story in BFV has a degree of player choice, allowing players to tackle objectives in any order.
While the gameplay is open, the story is a little more guided. The main issue I had with BF1 was the lack of narrative cohesion. Each story was self-contained and focused on a different aspect of the war. While getting to play the levels in any order is great for individual personalisation it means that you can’t effectively have a difficulty curve or sense of progression.
BFV now has that through line yet the story is still free form. You can play the story in any order, but if you play the game chronologically (as they are listed in the menu) starting with “Under No Flag” and ending with “The Last Tiger”, the game builds with each new step adding on from the last one.
“Under No Flag” starts as a stealth mission with an AI buddy and enemy squads far apart. “Nordlys” continues the stealth aspect but with you alone and with enemies in closer proximity to each other. “Tirailleur” puts you as a member of a squad of soldiers pushing through German lines, before “The Last Tiger” casts you against overwhelming odds and fighting alone. Each level builds on the last by putting you in familiar territory yet changing a small aspect each time. This slowly but surely ratchets up the difficulty curve without any immersion-breaking spikes.
Due to “The Last Tiger” not being available at launch a lot of players (including myself) would have played that chapter last. It is a fitting end and not just for having the word “last” in the title (other games such as Timesplitters Future Perfect, Halo 3, and Tomb Raider all follow this model with level names referencing their place within the story).
I had railed against the cinematic introduction to BFV, but “The Last Tiger” pulled the game into morally dark territory (and not just because we’re playing as the Nazis), ending the game on a perfect note. With the surrounding landscape wreathed in flames and the framed Nazi banner on the final bridge burning up, it paints a perfect metaphor for the tank crew and player character Müller’s unravelling allegiance to the Swastika. The darker edge fits better as an ending in general, having the player reminded at the end of the game of the destruction of war.
I also really liked how “The Last Tiger” broke tropes. When the radio in the tank is busted, Müller goes out in search of one. At first I believed we were going to go on an extended on-foot section to find several radios to repair, but it turns out there is a radio right next to the tank. Having a large map to explore would have killed the tension that the final section was building up and it was nice that pacing was chosen over an extended gameplay segment.
After hearing the broadcast on said radio, enemy tanks and soldiers roll in during gameplay. From the POV of the Tiger tank, the following sequence is setup like a stage; there is a slight border (mimicking curtains) and a raised section where the Allies appear. It is a beautiful tableau (in a game full of awe-inspiring vistas) and the fact that it is during gameplay makes it that more memorable.
In the end it almost felt like the opening was a bait-and-switch, aiming for a broader audience by being a bit more “intense” instead of mournful like the opening to BF1. Whether it was deliberate or accidental, I still love this campaign and look on it more fondly than I did when I started.
It was with a mix of trepidation and eagerness that I picked up Battlefield V. I had enjoyed the excellent War Stories in the previous game, Battlefield 1, and wished to see what creators DICE had followed up with. Yet I remained cautious. The previous War Stories had been a high point of my gaming experience of recent times and I didn’t want to raise my hopes too high in case they were dashed.
The sequence started beautifully, reusing the iconic shot from BF1 of the two opposing troops levelling their weapons at each other as the sun breaks through to the battlefield. That was one of the defining moments of BF1; it is abrupt from the carnage that we have been a part of and distinct in its imagery.
I had previously written about how even though I liked the War Stories of BF1 and the opening, it could have toyed with player expectations a little more with its use of death. BFV’s opening reuses this defeatist attitude and makes it work. We aren’t told that are characters are destined to die yet most of them do. But unlike BF1 we do not see their names upon death, an aspect that is sorely missing. While I am happy that DICE isn’t directly lifting from BF1 for the semi-sequel, the inclusion of character names added a sense of humanity that can usually get lost in the larger stories of a world war.
BFV also switches characters through its opening, circling around the locations that appear in the later War Stories. On the surface this is good. The major problem with the shorter stories in BF1 was the lack of narrative cohesion. With each story lasting around an hour, the overall arc falls flat with predictable peaks and troughs, leaving the game without a strong climax and resolution. The opening of BFV helps aid the previous lack of narrative structure by having the opening focus on the locations, but not always on the playable characters.
The paratroopers dropping into Norway, the German tank crew driving forward in the desert, the Senegalese troops providing covering sniper fire, and the German planes flying overhead, they give us a taster of what is to come and also help set up the story. For example, the paratroopers in Norway get slaughtered in the first few minutes of gameplay, with the playable character in the Norway section being the resistance member they were meant to rendezvous with.
The opening is also a beautiful example of editing within gaming. Each scene leads into one another and connected with excellent scene transitions. The tank in the Norway section rolls out into Libya, the plane flying overhead in the Kasserine Pass moves into dogfights over Germany, before said plane crashes into the Netherlands right in front of our new character. It is a nice flow of scenes and heightens that feeling of a world consumed by war.
However, while the changing characters help create that crux for the larger narrative, it means it loses something of its previous identity. BF1’s opening was set entirely on a singular battlefield. The fight was contained to one narrative with sweeping long shots taking us across the lines to the next solider after one had died. It told a solid story on its own and helped set that “anything goes” precedent of that game.
Swapping between five different fronts and fighting styles in the BFV opening feels disjointed and uneven and it is partly because of the change of scenery. The stakes change on a dime and the enemy we were previously charging is now half a valley away. It loses that excellent pace and momentum that the opening of BF1 had. This isn’t helped by the gameplay. In BF1 you could fight for as long as you wanted, but eventually you were going to be brought down by the enemy soldiers. In BFV the onus is on you to continue the story. This was especially evident in the Senegalese sniping and the German dogfight sections.
As I was getting to grips with the controls, my sniper aim lacked finesse, with shots widely missing the enemy targets. Only when all the targets are down will the prologue continue. In the German dogfight section I managed to shoot down several Allied bombers, but was unable to see the tiny red marker that indicated the ONE plane I was meant to shoot to continue the sequence.
The whole pacing is off. Each section starts the same; the player slowly moves forward before being presented with a few enemies and then ends with explosions. At least BF1 kept the explosions as a constant, throwing the players into disarray and keeping them on edge. It feels like there is a distinct lull in BFV’s opening and feels antithesis to the tone that it seems to be aiming for.
This comes to a head at the final playable section. After shooting some soldiers on a turret, you turn said turret around and direct the fire back. Your squad is bombed and you are paralysed, trying to hold off the oncoming enemies with only your pistol. It feels so odd to go from the excellent Remarquism of BF1 to this Hollywood-ised, last-man-standing depiction of battle.
I understand why it was done. This is the final scene, the gameplay needs to end at the same time as the narration for the pacing, but it doesn’t have that brutal edge that worked wonders in BF1. This final scene could have worked if we had control of our movement, if we were allowed to charge, retreat, anything other that having to sit still, playing out a sequence ripped straight out of Call Of Duty 4.
It is also a context problem. BF1 worked because it wasn’t about the grand ideas, rather focusing on the little person caught in the whirlwind of history. It was a pointless war with both sides fighting for pretty much the same reason and therefore could focus on the personal stories.
While there are flourishes of these individual stories in BFV’s campaign, the grand ideas can’t help but push through. Every fight (bar the Tiger tank story) is about pushing back the forces of darkness from enveloping the world. Every fight is about how to weaken and dismantle the Nazi war machine. It can’t help but BE that.
That’s not to say that grander stories are bad. Grand ideas work well in several games; Civilization, various CoDs, the first Assassin’s Creed, but the smaller stories are what gave BF1 a bit of bite and it is sad that BFV is without it. It means the characters in BFV don’t get a chance to shine since we don’t focus on them.
Characters like Zara Ghufran and Frederick Bishop in BF1 get small moments in between all the fighting, giving us hints of their personality and time outside the war. This makes them richer, making them more than the “stoic badass” or “stealthy assassin” archetypes. And I haven’t got that from a single lead in BFV yet.
Either way, I’m still enjoying BFV. I’m blazing through the campaign and will hopefully look fondly on my time spent with it. And while the opening fixes a lot of the issues I had with BF1’s, it can’t help but produce a few of its own.
Edit: Now that I have finished the campaign my feelings on BFV have changed. I started to really like the story and have written a follow up. You can read it here.
I recently finished Mafia 3 after a good few months playing it. It was one of the first games I got when I upgraded to the newest console generation and I was pretty much playing it non-stop, leaving other newer games by the wayside just to come back to this one again and again.
And after finishing the game I’m certain this will be among my favourite games I will play on this system.
Not since Remember Me has a whole game caught with me rather than just one or two good parts of it. So I thought a little breakdown about the points that hooked me into staying in New Bordeaux for much longer than I would ever imagine…
“We Are A Cruel And Wicked People”– Why I love Mafia 3
The Story And Characters.
The story is the high point of the game. Telling the story of bi-racial orphan and Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay, the narrative is told in a documentary flashback format. Characters tell their story in interview format, evoking recent films like Precinct Seven Five.
This feeds into the linear game structure, as we are being told a story (much like the previous Mafia games) which helps keep the pace up which can sometimes suffer in a game where you can go anywhere, anytime.
Despite having this linear structure the multiple endings all fit the character depending on the player’s reading of Lincoln.
I was surprised we didn’t start in Vietnam, similar to Mafia 2 starting in WW2 Italy, but that added to the characters, leaving us open to interpret Lincoln actions in Vietnam from his and comrade Donavan’s stories.
The story is beautifully realised with several standout characters. We have the three main bosses, Burke, Cassandra, and Vito, each with their own unique quirks. Vito is especially interesting, it’s fun to see a once playable character from the other side (again), where his simple layers in Mafia 2 (due to being a playable character) become a lot greyer with age and antagonism.
The second-in-commands too are well defined and have some interesting layers to them, making them more than cardboard cut outs that sometimes arrive with games as big as this. Emmanuel, the once refugee-saver reduced to dope peddling, Alma, the businesswoman not afraid to use female charms for her own gain, and Nicki, a woman struggling with her sexuality in a time and place that does not care for it, they all add something to the game, all through optional dialogue (which I am a big fan of ever since I first encountered it in PoP 2008).
But highest praise must go to Alex Hernandez for his portrayal of Lincoln Clay. Convincingly switching from cocky and confident to anger, sadness, joviality and eventually blood-driven when the time comes, he is truly an asset to the game.
One of the main criticisms of Mafia 3 is its mission structure. Very much like the first Assassin’s Creed, the game centers itself around taking down members of the Marcano crime family one district at a time.
Once you talk to a contact in the district you have several tasks dealt out to you, but these always follow the same path; kill some people, interrogate a member of the crime family or destroy their shipments. Once done then you can take over the rackets in that area before going after the main controller of the area.
This is just going to be one of those cases where I find enjoyment that others don’t. I think it might be because I really enjoyed the driving and combat (more on the latter next) so I had fun being given new scenarios lasting a few minutes to make my way through.
Hangar 13 said their approach to the missions, at least side missions, was “Lincoln doesn’t go fishing”. Essentially, this means the mission must make sense for the character to do (why does psychopathic murderer Michael De Santa do yoga in GTAV?). This feeds back into the story, again, keeping the pace and flow up rather than bogging the game down.
The Marcano capo missions are fun due to their added story and setting with each one being a completely unique situation; a shootout on a sinking steamboat, sneaking into a swanky whites-only party, breaking up a KKK-inspired cross burning, the list goes on and on (all involving excellent and period-fitting musical accompaniment such as the Rolling Stones, Del Shannon, and Janis Joplin).
While most devolve into shootouts the combat is so fun I never got bored. Speaking of which…
I can’t actually remember how long it’s been to have a combat system this satisfying, but it was probably at least back on the PS2 (I’m going to have a wild guess and say 007: Everything Or Nothing).
It’s your standard shooting, melee, and stealth tri-factor, but each one is done so well.
The gunplay feels responsive and sounds meaty, with a vast array of weapons to choose from.
At the start I was on-the-fly, picking up weapons due to limited ammo. Then I specialized in a sawn-off shotgun and sniper for both range advantages, before coming round to silenced pistol and assault weapons for an action/stealth combination. This is a perfect distillation of Hangar 13’s motto, “Every player’s story is unique”, and can be seen in the multiple approaches to combat as well as hidden pathways through the missions.
The animations in combat as well are a nice detail. With lovely smooth transitions from running (where Lincoln holds the gun one handed), to ADS, to the short sidestep after coming out of sights, the little points make the game feel rich and loved by the creators.
While the melee can become stale after the fiftieth whistle-come-stab, it does have moments of intense fun especially with the running takedowns. Only in a handful of games have I audibly “oohhhed” at the brutality I’ve dished out on NPCs (Sleeping Dogs is probably the main one), and Mafia 3’s American Football-style takedowns are poetry in motion.
You can choose between lethal and non-lethal attack as well. Even if the change is hidden in the pause menu rather than switching in gameplay it’s nice that you at least have the option. Especially since most games just give you “kill” as a catch-all for their combat.
The Open World and Travel
The world of New Bordeaux is a lovely city to drive around in. The cars seem more arcade-y than the previous Mafia games (there is an option of a Simulation mode for purists in the option menu). Lincoln’s signature vehicle is a classic, wheel spinning, fire spitting, drifting muscle car, and sliding across three lanes of traffic or 180 hand brake turns are easy to pull off and create that sense of spectacle and wonder we want from games.
As usual in Mafia games the setting is an approximation of a real city (this one being New Orleans), but has enough of its own style to stand out rather than feel like a copy/paste of Google Maps. The South has been the setting before in games, with indie hits like Virginia being in, well…Virginia, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 in Georgia, GTA: Vice City in Vice City (a version of Miami) and Left 4 Dead 2 in a swathe of southern states.
I would say only the latter two come close to creating a sense of place as good as New Bordeaux with Vice City also having Haitian and Cuban influences (but better at creating a sense of time rather than place) and L4D2 having a wide range of locales like Mafia 3 (but most feeling more like shells rather than a fleshed-out world). Mafia 3 is the first one that actually feels like a living place with countless indoor locations, pedestrians, and drivers.
Talking of the variety of locations, Mafia 3 has a selection to rival most other open world games. With settings such as the bayou, junkyards, quarries, downtown areas, and its own version to the French Quarter, the city has a tremendous scope of backgrounds for Lincoln to dish out punishment on the Italian mob.
And despite having these completely distinct sections the map, New Bordeaux doesn’t feel disjointed when moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, which has happened within other open world titles focusing on rising criminal empires.
The interesting part about my time with Mafia 3 is I was completely sick of open world games when I started. I was sick of the endless stream of side missions, the “revealing” of the world through climbing towers, the largely meandering story that can sometimes come with having a sandbox as big as it can be.
I had been wanting a more refined experience and Mafia 3 delivered. That’s what sets it apart from its contemporaries; GTA has the bustling modern metropolis filled to the brim, AC has the historical fiction, Fallout has the nuclear dys/utopia, and The Witcher/Skyrimhave the magical fantasy. The Mafia series works because it has a focused central story that fires straight as an arrow carving out its niche in the market.
And that niche made me adore Mafia 3. Add in a cracking sense of time and history, as well as vivid locations and brutal, satisfying combat sections, Mafia 3 is a gem in my game library.
I really like the Civilization series. I first came to the series with Civilization II on the original Playstation and sucked at it. Please understand I was probably around four or five years old at the time and pretty much completely blown away with what I had to do. I think I spent the majority of the game looking at the box cover which I still think is a elegant bit of art.
Through the years I would play different Civs, but only really got into the series with Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360. While Civ Rev (as it is more commonly known as) is seen as a runt of the litter by fans due to its more simplistic design and streamlining due to being on consoles it still holds a dear place in my heart.
It is one of those special games that managed to connect with non-gamers I know, with its mix of history, politics, and geography (all helpfully illustrated with the Civilopedia). I loved the game so much I even went out and got an old copy Sid Meier’s Pirates!, created by the main lead designer of the Civ series, Sid Meier.
Today I wanted to write about something I find fascinating about Civ Rev that I don’t see much of, that is adaptive music and sound effects.
Introduction – Music in the Games Industry
Music has become a large part of the culture behind video games. What started out as what Melanie Fritsch described as, “…a ‘bip’ disrupt[ing] the silence…” (pg. 12, 2013) has transformed into an integral part of the system.
This can be seen with the rise of famous composers being brought it to do video games soundtracks, with notable examples being Hans Zimmer (Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2009), Joe Hisashi (Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, 2013), and Tyler Bates (Rise Of The Argonauts, 2008).
There are even stars that are well known for their work on games. One of the high-profile creators is Jesper Kyd. Kyd is known for his work on the Hitman series as well as creating one of the most famous pieces of the seventh generation, Ezio’s Family, for Assassin’s Creed II (which has become THE defining piece for the entire series).
The music is so high profile now that games are picking up awards (Christopher Tin for Civ IV won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocalist(s)) and there are live performances for the music, for example, I went to the Tomb Raider Suite back in December 2016. In a similar vein Video Games Live is a major-selling show that plays famous video game music to sold-out venues.
But anyway, let’s move to focusing on Civ Rev.
The Silence In Between – Music and Sound in Civilization Revolution
A game of Civilization Revolution takes place over 6000 years. It starts in 4000BC with the game finally stopping at 2100AD if the player or AI haven’t reached a win situation.
The game is split up into four distinct eras, Ancient, Medieval, Industrial, and Modern. These rely on how advanced your civilization gets, with more technologies you discover your civ keeps moving forward.
The techs reflect this, with Bronze/Iron Working and Alphabet in the Ancient Era, Engineering and Banking in the Medieval, Gunpowder and the Railroad in the Industrial, and Electronics and Space Flight in the Modern.
As the game moves through time the music adapts and changes. It’s something that is so small but so engrossing. It would have been easy to have a singular “fight” sound, a continual loop that plays with every encounter, but for Civ Rev it changes based on your era.
Michael Liebe notes this as, “…linear music…” as it;
“…runs incessantly without any direct influence on the player’s action… [but] may change with different levels or milestones in the game.” (pg.47, 2013).
However, it also is part of what Liebe calls;
“…reactive music…[a] type of game-music [that is] is triggered by specific micro-actions… [such as] beginning a fight…” (pg. 47, 2013) because the battle music changes according to the era.
In the Ancient era, the player’s aggressive interactions with other civs or barbarians will produce woodwind and drums, perfectly evoking primitive instruments (4:23, 6:11, 12:24).
Moving to the Medieval era, there is a light accompaniment of brass into the mix, sometimes having an almost ecclesiastical quality (32:45, 33:23, 38:10).
The Industrial era brings with it strings, and heavier, lower-registered brass, hinting at the more expansionist, mechanized warfare as well as a more romanticized view of warfare that came with the age (1:04:24, 1:09:55, 1:10:28, 1:12:52, 1:15:57).
When a player reaches the Modern era, the sound completely changes with hints of synthesizers, metallic percussion, and even some electric guitar thrown into the mix (35:23, 35:39, 42:46).
The sound effects also follow this mode of changing although these can also be based on the unit (be it the ship, warrior, caravan etc.). While each has a “movement” sound effect, with marching boots, revving engines, or oars in water depending on the unit, it was the idle sounds that drew my attention.
Just hovering your cursor over a galley or galleon produces creaking wood and flapping sails. Hover over a warrior and your hear swinging swords, or pawing hooves on a horseman unit.
This even translates to the world. As you move over the ocean, crashing waves greet you. If you have built a city near the sea you hear crowing seagulls and shoreline swash. Build a strong market place and you hear barters conversing in shouts, or if you select a high profile mining and factory town, the sounds of hammers on metal and machines can be heard.
It’s not a subtle change, but it is somehow smooth. As we move through the eras not just the music changes but the visuals too, with our “advisors” (who look strikingly similar to Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) taking on different dresses and outfits depending on the era. Roads adapt too, moving from dirt tracks, to cobbled streets, and finish as tarmac highways.
I previously mentioned Sid Meier’s Pirates! as being another game I picked up due to loving Civ Rev. Despite the remake of Pirates! being thirteen years old at this point its music is very much the same; always playing, but then reactive as to the situation, the location, and your reputation.
As you pass by ports of the different nations they each have their own theme. Even passing by the ports of pirate havens, Jesuit missions, and natives have their own musical accompaniments. Upon entering into the towns, the music seamlessly switches into different tones for the merchant, governor, tavern, and shipwright. But it’s the way the music adapts that got me again.
One of the gameplay themes of Pirates! is making money for certain nationalities. You can do this in many ways; become a pirate and plunder gold, trade professionally with merchants, or even send in some pirates or natives to raid towns.
This creates wealth disparity between ports with some being filthy rich (with the nation’s flag above being crisp and clean) while others are desolate (with the same flag being dirty and torn). The music reflects this with rich towns having beautiful renditions of the nations tune while poorer towns have maybe a single instrument with some notes being off-key. For example, here is the standard British theme and here is the poorer version.
All the parts I’ve talked about are small parts of the games. Most of these are not even needed as far as a minimum viable product; they are there as nice additions to the final published work. But that makes me love them even more.
They are so small but they create a much better product by having it adapt to the changing landscape and react to the player’s decisions.
It’s almost comfortable; a change that doesn’t jar you out of the experience but lets you settle into it. And with even the shortest Civ games taking place over a good few hours it helps aid that sense of progression.
Edit: This comes to an apotheosis with Civ VI, with the themes for the countries adapting and adding instruments as time continues. Similar to Civ Rev the themes are traditional songs from each civilisation, but these variations are excellent additions and aid that sense of passing time. My favourites are the Americans, Indian, and Greek.
[Back to original text].
We’ve all played games where the same two or three sound effects are used for battle sequences or playing over menus and load screens. Some of these soundtracks are great and I love them just as much.
But that reactive quality that I previously mentioned gives Civ Rev an extra quality that I never thought about let alone be able to vocalize a need for it.
It’s such a small touch and elevates Civ Rev in my mind to a much higher place for having it in.
Fritsch, M. (2013). History Of Video Game Music. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p.11-40). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.
Liebe, M. (2013). Interactivity and Music in Video Games. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p. 41-62). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.
I recently upgraded my console to the newest gen (PS4) after a good near decade of time with my Xbox 360. I bought a few games for the new console; Assassin’s Creed Unity (so I could pretend I was in an Alexandre Dumas novel), Mafia 3 (so I could drive around New Orleans), and finally Battlefield 1.
I’d never played a Battlefield game before apart from a few matches on a friend’s console of Bad Company 2. I always thought of Battlefield as a multiplayer-focused title so my interest was immediately turned off (local co-op is more my thing). Add to the fact that it was a continuation of a gritty, modern war aspect; nothing about the series got me hooked enough to play.
But with the announcement of Battlefield 1 being set in the First World War my interest was piqued. So I picked up the game and its probably the best thing I’ve played so far on my new system.
I was in love with time period (although annoyingly the game was focused on the latter part of the war to add as many machine guns as possible) and happy that the developers looked beyond the trenches of Western Europe. I was especially excited to see Gallipoli and Arabia make an appearance with a female Bedouin playable character in the latter section.
From a narrative perspective the change from sprawling epics to individual vignettes of War Stories is a stroke of genius, allowing the developers to move from battle to battle without having to tie it into each other. While the smaller stories mean you lose larger narrative structure making the ending feel flat, the end coda is a nice wrap up.
I just wish they had added more in connection with the DLCs, with battles on the Russian Front, or even better some from the Central Powers point of view (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottomans, and Bulgaria). This isn’t the Second World War with a clear bad guy on one side (so we are not playing as Nazis). If we want to talk about crappy stuff on the Allies side in WWI, Gallipoli and Arabia have you covered. Even the game acknowledges this with the final coda in the Arabian section (13:17).
But today I wanted to write about the opening of the game and how even though I like the start of Battlefield 1, the game bungles its hand and for me loses some impact. I am of course talking about, “You Are Not Expected To Survive.”
Battlefield 1 & Death As Inevitability
Many people hold up Battlefield 1’s opening as one of the most engaging bits of interactive media of the generation. As the game starts you are dropped into the boots of a member of the Harlem Hellfighters.
After a few lines telling us how many people fought and how world changing the “War To End All Wars” another line flashes up;
“What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.”
It’s an effective opening and conveys the game’s darker theme than other shooters as well as portraying the brutality and futility of some battles. BF1 carries this tone throughout the rest of the game with No Man’s Land during “Fall From Grace” being littered with soldiers (and rats), or the final push on “Cape Helles” showing the amount of deaths it took to take the hill.
However, I feel that telling the player that death is inevitable makes the prologue lose its shocking quality. Most players were probably the same as me, trying to fight for as long as they could, but eventually falling to a hail of bullets before quickly moving onto the next character.
The expectation of death (for me anyway) made me feel a little defeatist. What was the point of playing if I was just going to die anyway?
So, What Would Be Better?
I did some research into WWI deaths for this article, but nobody can really give a definitive answer to deaths in WWI due to the huge amounts of missing and unnamed soldiers.
History On The Net ranks it collectively as 2/3 soliders died. The official statistics are 6 million for the Entente Powers, and 4 million for the Central Powers.
But let’s take 2/3 as our number just for conveniences sake.
“What follows is frontline combat. Two out of every three soldiers in WWI died.”
Now, what that does is give a glimmer of hope to a player. As players we are conditioned to not dying in-game. That third, that 1/3, we think it will be us. So when we die and your character’s name flashes on screen it would hit much harder. This is a concept known as defamiliarization (breaking away from traditional forms to allow us to view things differently, such as being killed again and again in what should be a fun shooting game), and interestingly here is an academic dissection of the scene by Stuart Marshall Baker which discusses the idea in relation to the prologue. If we even wanted to go further the game could pit us in a battle where entire squads were wiped out such as The Somme or Passchendaele.
“What follows is frontline combat. Entire squads were wiped out in a single day.”
That still delivers a grim mood, but isn’t an absolute. You could still make it through and be one of the lucky ones.
I believe that giving us that inch of hope only to snatch it away would make for an effective and memorable opening. Obviously some of the gameplay would need to be changed. It would lose some effectiveness if players were allowed to pause and restart immediately after dying thinking that they could win the fight. Something similar happened with the “corrupted” section of Batman: Arkham Asylum when you meet Scarecrow (00:05-00:14). Anecdotal evidence aside, I know friends who went to go get their discs fixed because they thought it was a bug.
At the moment this seems like a bit of a pipedream, more theory without a real-world example. So let me show you a similar game (from the EA stable) that conveys a similar theme and makes it work.
Lets talk Medal Of Honor (2010).
Comparison: Medal Of Honor & The Looming Horror Of Death
I really liked the two Medal of Honor reboots, Warfighter and all. Part of it was the “Based On True Events” aspect; I found that to be an interesting and unique selling point.
Medal Of Honor in 2010 was set all during the first few days of the Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, with the player switching between a behind-enemy-lines secret operative and a Ranger who was part of the larger invasion force.
In our first mission as the latter character, “Belly of The Beast”, our transport helicopter drops us into a firefight and we must make our way to another drop zone and set up a perimeter for a medical transport. We move through the hills and encounter enemies and old relics of the Russian invasion.
Another reason why I love this game is also highlighted in this mission; you are not always the pointman. Your character carries a massive machine gun, better for suppressive fire than leading the charge. It was a little change from the one-man-army approach of Call Of Duty and I really liked it. But I digress…
We get to end of the level where the drop zone is to be located; a large, flat plain. You are ambushed from the hills and you cower with your comrades in the only cover there is, a small hut in the middle of the plain. Your radio messenger tries to call in support as you try and keep enemies at bay.
This is the end of the level. If you haven’t been stocking up on ammo (by requesting ammo from your teammates, which destroys some of the tension) then you will be running dangerously low just like the rest of your team. As you pick up stray rifles from dead enemies and are forced to use your pistol you realise that there are too many enemies and that reinforcements won’t get there in time.
Your commander tells the radioman to call off reinforcements and you start to contemplate the end, fighting until every last bullet is gone.
Around ten seconds later rockets fly across the sky as a pair of Apache helicopters come to help you out by scaring away the enemies. You end up surviving by the skin of your teeth and go on to fight another day.
This scene works because instead of subverting our ideas of death at the start like Battlefield 1, it waits until the end to make that shock and reflection closer together.
We were not thinking that we were going to die (inside the story rather than dying as a “game over”) and having that few moments to allow that idea to sink in was a chilling and horrifying feeling, something that Battlefield 1’s opening line extinguished by making us aware of the inevitability of the situation.
Protagonist deaths have started to become a wider theme in gaming nowadays although many of them won’t have it during gameplay. One of the memorable ones is Call Of Duty, with Modern Warfare 2’s Roach being killed at the end of a level. But Roach’s death is during a cutscene with control taken away from the player, lessening the impact. The same happens with playable character Pvt. Allen during the infamous “No Russian” level, where he dies at the end during a cutscene.
Red Dead Redemption had a similar scene with player character John Marston being shot down during a last stand during the finale. However, there isn’t much lead into the scene, with the death/shooting being moved to a cutscene rather than during gameplay.
The closest scene that I can think of is Halo: Reach’s ending. Again, you know that death is unavoidable, all the ships have taken off without you and you are left to fight an endless wave of Covenant troops. But just before you die you take off your helmet and it fades to cutscene again just like all the other games I’ve mentioned.
Battlefield 1 is an improvement over these scenes by having death come at you during gameplay. But by telling us that it is coming I feel that it loses some of that punch it could have had.
I still love Battlefield 1 and I still think its probably my favourite game on my new system, but that opening, while still impactful may have reached greater heights by toying with us a little more.