Saturday, February 11, 2023
Did you ever play that game with the guy and the gun? You know the one, the survival horror from 2005. He had to save someone’s daughter, on foreign soil. For an action hero, he was unusually pretty; he wore a stylish jacket, and his hair was combed into curtains. The camera hung close to his back and peered over his shoulder as he took aim. Plus, his gun was fitted with one of those nifty laser sights. It shone on the crackable heads of his foes, who were once normal folk but who had since staled and paled into anything but. I am talking, of course, about Cold Fear. And the reason that it sprang to mind, this week, is because of its long-held refusal to stick in – let alone spring to – anyone else’s.
Its hero was Tom Hansen, a member of the United States Coast Guard, and his life jacket was the crisp, ringing red of a London telephone box. His job was to poke around on the good ship Eastern Spirit – a Russian whaler, adrift in the Bering Strait and likely not so good any more – and find out why nobody has heard back from the Navy SEAL team that went in to investigate hours before. Cold Fear was published by Ubisoft and made by Darkworks, the studio that turned in the sturdy, if unastounding, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare. Like that game, this one was also in hock to Resident Evil, specifically Resident Evil 4; and, though the result was impressive (I’m always a sucker for a doomed ship, shocked by lightning and whipped by cappuccino waves) the problem was that the nightmare wasn’t new. Leon Kennedy had leapt onto the GameCube that January and made Tom Hansen look fit for retirement.
But here’s the thing: Cold Fear was good. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t a masterpiece that made short work of our expectations and chewed its genre into rubble, changing the way that games would unfold for the next two decades. It was a solidly built thriller, with a couple of good spooks and a handful of decent set pieces. It wasn’t truly scary. It lacked that compound of panic and clammy psychological chill that seems solely the reserve of Japanese studios – the Eastern Spirit with which things like Silent Hill 2, Siren, and the early Resident Evils are rich. But you could fill a weekend with the slosh and heave of Tom Hansen’s bad day and go into Monday, after an untroubled sleep, with a smile.
There is much to be said for this. And much to be said for games that are unburdened by genius. They require no grappling with, no realignment of one’s expectations; they hit their marks, and they make no fuss. In short, we ought to take a moment and pay our homage to those games that are simply good. For one thing, we are hardly drowning in them; there is a sea of crummy titles, in any given year, and there is much to be gleaned by playing Coast Guard and fishing out the ones that warrant, if not our adoration, then our satisfied approval. Forspoken came out last month and earned the ire of many, for what sounded like crimes against humanity but what was, in fact, some mildly cringe-worthy dialogue from its heroine, Frey Holland. If we directed our spleen at every game that was filled with that, we would hardly ever come up for air.
Days Gone was similarly maligned. To venture praise for the exploits of its hero, a biker by the name of Deacon St. John, seems terribly unfashionable, especially in light of how revved-up some of its critics were. But I consider it nothing short of a fun time, with an itchy central performance by Sam Witwer and a nice, fuel-injected spin on the crusty conceit of a zombie apocalypse. Both games were PlayStation exclusives, cushioned and boosted with cash, so their failure to reach the rarefied heights of, say, God of War or The Last of Us may have felt more like a plummet. But there is a deeper urge, I think, to either push our praise to its lung-busting limit or else to lavish a game with our unfiltered scorn. Anything in between could risk coming across as either boring or as if we were hedging our bets.
There are also occasions when something arrives that happens to be merely good, not great, but which hails from a hallowed lineage. This was the case with Halo 4 and Halo Infinite (speaking purely to their campaigns, at any rate), whose predecessors were ringed with gleaming praise and dramatically altered the way that shooters – particularly the online variety – worked on consoles. That’s an awful weight for a new game, even if the one shouldering it is Master Chief, the jolly green giant that guided those older entries to success. I remember playing those newer Halo games and considering them a crushing, Bungie-less fall from grace; viewed in direct comparison, perhaps they are. But the fact is that they still trump plenty of other shooters, and they gave me a string of pleasant hours in which my spirits were raised by the boot-up hum of the Chief’s body armour.
It isn’t just that not every game can be a chunk of unremitting genius; it’s that we wouldn’t want them to. There are some weekends on which genius is an unappealing proposition, and what we need is solidity – a healthy strewing of the trashy along with the treasured. Moreover, our recommendations of these games, to friends or to people further afield, need not be doled out with radioactive fervour. Otherwise, we lose the middle ground; we lose the ability to alight meaningfully on the worthwhile. So here’s to Deacon St. John, Frey Holland, and, yes, Tom Hansen. They were good.
Saturday, February 11, 2023 @ 05:38 PM
Sunday, February 12, 2023 @ 01:05 PM
Sunday, February 12, 2023 @ 02:52 PM
Monday, February 13, 2023 @ 08:44 AM