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Analysis

Impressions From The EB Games Expo – Part Two

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Yesterday Damien went through the upcoming racing games he got to play at EB Expo, like the racing champ he is. Luckily for me, that meant I didn’t have to embarrass myself by showing my overwhelming racer mediocrity. And it also meant I could focus on my niche – the shooters.

That’s right, folks, I’m going to tell you all about things that go boom. By golly was there a lot of boom. Well, there were four shooters that were playable at EB Expo, but each brought a hell of a lot of boom. Whether it was Activision’s action movie juggernaut Call of Duty Ghosts, or EA’s more grounded competitor Battlefield 4, or Sony’s Killzone Shadow Fall, or EA/Microsoft’s titanic Titanfall, each shooter brought it. Despite all the preview sessions being strictly multiplayer only, I can tell you that we’re looking at some of the finest shooters to date coming out in the very near future. And let me tell you why.

Call of Duty Ghosts

Ah yes. You can’t shoot guns at imaginary pixel people without thinking of Call of Duty these days, and it definitely showed with the massive line. People spent hours queuing to get their hands on the next generation offering in the ginormous franchise. I can’t blame them; there is no denying Call of Duty’s popular appeal.

Hell, I love to give it flak, but there’s an itch that CoD just knows how to scratch. Its shooting is finely honed to a razor sharp experience, and the set pieces are always so dramatic. A Michael Bay popcorn film that’s always a fun ride, even for arty-farty indie game loving types like me.

CoD Ghosts is, well, a Call of Duty game. We played a round of what I think was domination in a snowy map, with Xbox One controllers. Teams took and held positions, and ran around shooting other dudes a lot. It was all appropriately frantic and shootery and predictably unpredictable. I think we won, but we could have lost. I don’t think I did particularly well.

More interesting were some of the new additions to character customisation. Instead of loadouts, you customise certain soldiers’ perks and weapons. We didn’t have access to a massive amount of content, but the new modified pick ten system familiar to those who played Black Ops 2 worked very well. Perks are divided into categories, such as Speed (Quickdraw, Sleight of Hand et al), or Awareness (Scavenger, Recon etc) or what have you. Depending on the potency of the perk, it cost a certain amount of points from your available pool to equip. The system was fair and fluid, and a refinement on previous instalments in the series.

Graphically, Call of Duty Ghosts was somewhat of a letdown. It looks good. It’s the best looking Call of Duty to date. But that’s like saying it’s the tastiest liquorice you’ve ever had (I hate liquorice). Sure, there is some new shine and tricks, but it’s simply not comparable to a high-end PC game – it’s drastically inferior to Crysis 3 or Battlefield 3 on a decent rig. It looks good, and it looks better, but for a next generation shooter, it looks lacking.

Overall, Ghosts feels like Call of Duty. Nothing has been radically changed. The same bluster and rhythm that has come to define a genre is spot on in Ghosts. If nothing else, Call of Duty Ghosts is another Call of Duty, and, like every yearly release in the series, is the latest Call of Duty. You probably already know if you’re going to get it, or if you’re going to hate it on principle. All I can say is that Ghosts is in fine form for the series, and continues to refine the already highly polished gameplay.

Battlefield 4

Going head-to-head with Ghosts’ milshoots was EA’s own military first person shooter title, Battlefield 4. A lot of the time it seemed to play second fiddle to Ghosts’ intimidatingly large line, but I daresay EA packed as many people through the Battlefield doors as possible.

Before playing, the professionally enthusiastic booth staff sat us all down for a little video presentation, detailing the changes, updates, game mode, marketing guff for Battlefield 4. After 8 or so minutes of watching trailers, listening to spin, actually watching gameplay footage and learning about how to play, and hearing the “word” Levolution so many times our ears wanted to vomit, we finally got to go in to the darkened area. Surprisingly (and incredibly thankfully) we were given the choice between feeble, pitiful controllers or mighty and superior keyboard and mouse to play.

We played a round of the brand new Obliteration mode on the rather interesting Paracel Storm map. The objective of Obliteration is to find and pick up a bomb and deliver it to a number of enemy objectives. It’s sort of like capture the flag with moving home bases. It’s actually a rather fun mode, enabling any player to feel like a damn hero storming the (both figurative and literal) enemy beaches. Paracel Storm was an interesting map to play on – a smattering of small islands chained together into a loose archipelago. There was parachuting and swimming and boats and buildings, with a vast scale to the game that Battlefield multiplayer is known for. Naturally, we obliterated the other team, with me blowing up a number of objectives all by my lonesome.

Gunplay is very familiar from Battlefield 3, with bullet physics and gun mechanics returning. You have to lead and adjust for drop at a distance, and all distances feel dramatically further than you think they are, especially coming from the small scale of Ghosts. Classes return, but this time guns can be very specifically customised. Attachments for optics, under barrel attachments, barrel changes, stocks, and muzzle attachments, as well as almost bottomless emblem and camo options allow for a personalised approach that I would have liked to have had more time with.

Graphically, Battlefield 4 looks absolutely gorgeous. The Frostbite 3 tech adds a gorgeous look to everything, with heavily accented lens flare and post process film effects stylizing the appearance. Lighting is truly beautiful. Sound is spot-on. Destruction is delightfully responsive. It looked truly next-gen, although the game was running on PC and not console.

In short, the foundations for Battlefield 4 are the best anyone could hope for. The next step will be building a semblance of story for the campaign and not recreating the travesty that was Battlefield 3’s excuse for a single player campaign. In the interest of honesty, there were one or two glitches I encountered, but I hope that it’s due to us playing unfinished code. If they iron out the bugs and deliver a halfway decent story, Battlefield 4 could be something actually worth playing.

Killzone Shadow Fall

The only platform exclusive game on this list, and the only one I played on a PlayStation 4, Killzone Shadow Fall is somewhat of a dark horse. While Ghosts and BF4 are coming to PS4, they are also on Xbone and PC, and Titanfall is a Microsoft Xbone/PC exclusive, Shadow Fall is only going to be coming to PlayStation 4. I guess that means Shadow Fall is going head-to-head with Titanfall in the shooter exclusives race. Sort of.

Following the struggle between the Helghast and the Vektans, Shadow Fall is going to be focusing primarily on single player. Unfortunately, again, only the multiplayer was on offer, which is a blow for any single player focused shooter hoping to sell itself on its weakest points.

We were thrown into standard deathmatch on a vibrantly bland ruined map. It was appropriately futuristic, with standard future weapons and blamming. Combat was the slowest paced of all the shooters, with movement almost sluggish. I’m told this is standard for the series – which I have never played – and it probably suits single player much better than multiplayer. Guns felt heavy and punchy, with a good thunk behind them. Aiming was a little tricky, with minimal (if any) aim assist translating to a number of very near misses for my keyboard and mouse accustomed hands. Mechanically, Killzone Shadow Fall was the least smooth and elegant multiplayer shooter at the show.

Multiplayer loadout options aren’t extensive. The choice of guns was rudimentary, with standard heavy rifle, assault rifle, shotgun, pistol options available. You can tell that Killzone’s is mostly about the single player by the generic options available. The issue will be with how good the single player portion is. At the very least it looked beautiful, in its own dark aesthetic way.

Titanfall

Ah, Titanfall. I love Titanfall.

It’s easy to use words like “revolutionary” when talking about the newest games, but Titanfall is truly revolutionary. Its unique blending of campaign elements, bots, infantry combat, mecha combat, vertical layering, and general smooth gameplay is something I have never seen before.

Each multiplayer match is a story mission. Every match is framed by a story objective, playing out during match setup. You’ll be given objectives and, more importantly, narrative justification for those objectives. We played a standard deathmatch game, although it felt nothing like deathmatch, since we were tasked with holding the position (map) from enemy forces. Being told that you have to repel an enemy attack by eliminating their forces completely changes the feeling of the completely standard deathmatch, disguising it and making it feel more relevant. The biggest question mark will be how Titanfall sustains a cogent narrative flow through its missions for those just looking for a quick deathmatch compared to those looking for an actual campaign. But playing the missions, I have zero doubt that it will be anything less than stellar.

Matches play out in a number of stages. First there is character customisation, where you can choose a loose class and customise your loadout, then select your Titan type and customise its loadout. Then there is narrative, where the mission briefing will embed your game type within the wider narrative of interplanetary war. Then, there is the drop. Your pilot will begin on the ground, armed with a primary, secondary, and anti-Titan weapon, and some nifty little tricks to help with navigation. Namely, the jet-pack.

As a feeble fleshbag, you are susceptible to dying relatively quickly, however the tradeoff is your enhanced mobility. Your size will allow you to enter buildings and small alleyways through doors and windows, giving you enhanced cover from pilots and enemy Titans. Your jet-pack gives you the ability to jump rather far, double jump, and wall run. Our session tutor boasted that the map we were playing on was designed so a person could traverse the entire map without ever touching the ground. I believe him. Movement was smooth, elegant, and so so fluid. Jumping around the map, running along walls, and vaulting through windows to cover felt wonderful, even on a controller. Shooting felt wonderfully polished, up to the standard of Call of Duty – understandably, since Respawn is mostly made of ex-Infinity Ward devs.

Your main bread and butter will be enemy pilots controlled by humans. They’re strong, and it feels very much like combat between equals. Interspersed between enemy, player controlled pilots and Titans are AI controlled bots. These relatively dumb enemies serve as little more than annoyances to the skilled player. They chip away, take up space, and generally are there to die. Your enhanced weaponry, mobility, and strength when facing the AI make you feel like a total boss.

Things change after your two minute counter ticks to empty. “Prepare for Titanfall”. Set the locator, and your personalised gigantic death machine drops from the sky. Entering the Titan is a delight, as the HUD wraps around you in an appropriately futuristic fashion. You are then let loose with your massive guns to wreak havoc unto the enemy. Titans are slow, strong, and heavily armoured. What they have in power, they lack in mobility. The old ways are closed to you, as your Titan stalks the wide streets and avenues looking for vulnerable targets and enemy Titans.

Miraculously, it is never unbalanced. The strength and armour of the Titans is offset by how they manage to draw the attention of enemies with anti-Titan weaponry – which everyone carries automatically. Titan battles become the spectacle, with a faster dance of pilots around them, fighting Titans and each other. In between these player generated, organically occurring set pieces in motion, bots and pilot skirmishes crop up, making sure there is always action. Points are awarded for kills, based on the potency of the enemy – bots count for practically nothing, pilots give a decent amount, and Titan kills grant a bunch of XP. More significantly, you never feel unfairly outmatched.

At the end of the battle comes the extraction. The defeated team is given a brief time limit in which they must evacuate to a safe location, and the victors must prevent that by killing a lot of dudes. The team that accomplishes the objective gains a hefty amount of bonus experience, although success for either side is not guaranteed.

Visually, it’s exciting. Not technically the best looking game – probably on-par with Ghosts – but it’s bright and vibrant and eclectic and a pleasure to see in motion. The trademark smooth frame rate kicks in and makes the entire experience as smooth as cream.

I don’t recall being as captured by a AAA game in a very long time as I have been by Titanfall. It seems, quite frankly, amazing. Mixing smooth action, balanced gameplay, and most importantly the promise of a story, Titanfall will be the next big thing.

Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

Analysis

A Mind at War With Itself: Hellblade and the Lived Experience of Mental Illness

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*Note: This article contains spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and references to mental illness. Reader discretion is strongly advised.*

More than six months on from its initial release, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s dedication to an honest portrayal of mental illness through the protagonist, Senua, ensures the game remains one of the most meaningful and affecting of recent times. While discussion of media products’ value has turned the past few years to focus on inclusive portrayals of race or gender, the mentally ill remain underserved. Too often do depictions of depression, anxiety, and psychosis latch on to the simplest and, in some ways, most offensive stereotypes. Seeing Max Payne or Sebastian Castellanos trying to drown their sorrows is a world away from my experiences. By contrast, Senua’s struggles—from both a narrative and allegorical standpoint—are more relatable. In focusing on accuracy above all else, Ninja Theory succeeded in creating a title capable of resonating with an audience normally forced to the fringes in fiction, and, for that, the team deserves to be applauded.

Hellblade’s surface-level portrayal of psychosis has been lauded from many quarters, including being named as Game Beyond Entertainment at the recent BAFTA Game Awards, yet the adventure doubles as an allegory for life with mental illness. The opening moments set the tone of the title as Senua, beset by disembodied voices, steers a primitive canoe along a fog-shrouded waterway. The tranquility of the surroundings contrasts against the maelstrom of sound, and therein lies the first hint of the game’s deeper engagement with its central topic: unlike injury, physical deformity, or racial and sexual difference, mental illness has no easily recognisable signs. An individual looking on sees only another person, while the sufferer is being torn apart by the conflicts running through their mind. However, those voices—the Furies, as Senua thinks of them—are central to more than just Ninja Theory’s depiction of psychosis and, by extension, the Hellblade experience; they are also integral to the message that the game ultimately conveys.

Senua arrives in a strange land where mutilated corpses stand as a warning of horrors yet to come. Though players do not learn it until later in the journey, the character’s quest in this faraway place is to bring her lover, Dillion, back to life by descending into the Viking underworld of Helheim and confronting its nightmarish deity, Hela. Given that the game is burdened by the weight of reality through Senua’s movement and the level of detail, the mission seems incongruous.

Hellblade

However, this dissonance contributes to the allegory. Mental illness is fundamentally irrational—the sufferer episodically or eternally unhinged from reality. External circumstances may induce or exacerbate conditions, but the insecurities arising from them are rarely easily attributable to a clear source. Thankfully, I cannot claim to suffer from issues as intense as those of Senua, but I can understand her plight. We with broken minds feel disassociated from those around us and unable to relate. As such, although outreach programs are a noble endeavour, their premise is flawed. When trapped in the throes of a negative or deranged mindset, letting someone else in feels dangerous:

‘What if they don’t believe me?’

‘How will they judge me?’

‘What if I hurt them or, worse, they hurt me?’

Even knowing that such doubts are nothing more than the illusory creations of my brain, when they run rampant, I am unable to contradict them. These false realities overpower my seemingly tenuous awareness of the objective world. Finding a buoy to cling to in the storm-tossed waters of mental tumult is nigh impossible, but I have someone and Senua had Dillion.

As such, Dillion is far more than a MacGuffin; he is a symbol of the path out of the darkness that Senua had begun to walk. Therefore, her determination to bring him back to life is not just another fantasy video game objective, but a cry for help. Senua wants to be healed. However, to do so, she must undertake a harrowing journey that will force her to confront both internal and external demons.

Before Senua can pass through the gate to Helheim, she must enter the realms of the gods Valravn and Surt to make them bleed. In the story, these two beings appear as little more than obstacles to be overcome, and the puzzles that lead to them border on busywork. The aforementioned gods are of far greater relevance in the allegory as they stand in for the first phase of healing: diagnosis. Together, they reflect the lived experience of mental illness.

Valravn is a god of illusion; thus, of the two gods, he is the easier to contextualise as a metaphor of Senua’s psychosis. As players progress through this section of the game, they solve optical-illusion-based puzzles by utilising gateways that alter parts of the environment. This alignment of mechanics and the subjectivity of perception results in the level being a reflection of the struggle to recognise reality. For Senua, that means realising that the voices that plague her are not external beings, but manifestations of her subconscious and, therefore, are unable to guide her. For me, the battle is to remember that other people will not judge me negatively offhand.

Similarly to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and psychosis, social anxiety has been trivialised by its use in the vernacular and mistaken for a desire to avoid interaction. My experience is the opposite. I would relish the freedom to attend events or talk to people in social situations comfortably, but these things are trying, and I invariably end up drained or on the verge of tears. In a crowd, I feel overly alert for even the faintest hint of danger, and, in conversation, I am tormented by thoughts and fears of what the other party thinks of me. Though these worries make daily life difficult, I have no idea if they have a firm basis in reality. Subjectivity overwhelms objectivity, which is also true in Valravn’s realm where illusion rules over the material world.

Surt is different; rather than reflecting the experience of mental illness, his flames describe its nature. Fire makes for a powerful metaphor. When controlled, the heat and light afforded by flame is comforting, but, loosed, it becomes all-consuming. One of the most frequently overlooked qualities of ‘abnormal’ mindsets is their ability to self-perpetuate. Though they can destroy lives, the abject greyness, voices, or delusions become a solace. Far from feeling ruinous, they reassure against stressors and daily rigours. In Surt’s world, the inferno rages at the touch of an external catalyst, leaving Senua’s only option to run, terrified, towards a gate and break through to quell the flames behind her. This gameplay conceit echoes the often episodic experience of mental illness, as well as the struggle of escaping its grip. One does not simply walk out of a warped mindset—a breakthrough is needed.

HB2

Identification is necessary before hope of healing. Overcoming Surt and Valravn reflects the former process, allowing the gates of Helheim to open so that Senua can confront her demons. At that point, the title’s focus shifts from the present to the past, beginning by revealing Dillion’s role as a symbol and, later, a guide to help Senua flee from the harmful influences that permeated her youth. The series of diverse challenges that ensue is a kind of therapy, delving into some of the watershed moments of her past, clarifying and correcting misconceptions presented earlier in the adventure. In the present, as in the past, Dillion arms Senua with the tools to challenge those people and voices who try to silence and subjugate her by revealing the truth that she is not cursed, but ill and misunderstood.

With these challenges complete and the legendary sword Gramr in her possession, the protagonist embarks on the last part of her journey. Hela’s final guardian is Garm, a half-rotted beast that uses darkness as its weapon. The implication is clear: throughout the game—as in wider discussions of the topic—Senua has referred to her mental illness as a darkness, so this penultimate battle is intended to strip away remaining misconceptions and free herself from her psychosis. Subsequent events seem to confirm her newfound freedom as she steps through a mirror and leaves behind her Furies.

Hela awaits.

However, as with everything in Hellblade, reality is to be questioned. Hela is not the goddess that Senua believes she is, but a manifestation of the core of her own psychosis. During the battle, Senua realises the unintentional evil done by her father in his attempts to expel her demons, contextualising the realms of Valravn, Surt, and Garm as extensions of his actions. According to common belief, these epiphanies should enable Senua to overcome her issues and emerge as a well-adjusted member of society. Instead, she is forced to fail and fall without ever having been able to lay her blade upon her final adversary.

In taking this approach, Ninja Theory displays both boldness and maturity. Nonetheless, this seeming death is not the end. Hela takes Dillion’s skull and casts it into an abyss, following which she transforms into Senua. By conflating the two characters in this moment, Senua’s development is emphasised; though she needed Dillion to help her see that she was not cursed, she no longer needs to rely on him.

The truth that Ninja Theory conveys so effectively is that mental illness is not an adversary to be defeated or an obstacle to be overcome. As time has passed, I have developed an awareness of the beginnings of an episode and formed an ability to analyse what in my life can be changed to mitigate its impact. Furthermore, though another person may be able to provide guidance and assistance, the struggle is always deeply personal. We can often barely describe the wars that our minds engage in against themselves, and we certainly cannot invite someone else in to fill us with rainbows and sunshine.

As the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing one of the most breathtaking sights in all of Hellblade, Senua’s Furies return, rejoicing at still being alive. The protagonist had to ‘die’ because she tried to reject them. She smiles to hear them again, having realised that they are a part of her, as mental illness always is. Living with such problems can, at times, be a harrowing, seemingly impossible task, but to deny them is to deny the self.

I could write volumes more about the levels, enemies, mechanics, and story of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and how all of these disparate elements work together to present a more cohesive and compelling experience than almost any other game built on the same scale. For now, though, all I have left to write is thank you to the development team for having the courage and conviction to bring this game to life.

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