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TWO GAMES OF NOTE

09 February 2008

So, my Xbox 360 still hasn't yet exploded, and I've been playing lots of games on it for the past two weeks. The machine has seen a lot of action already, so I'm not regretting the purchase at all. Two games in particular I've played need some attention here. The first is Overlord, which is extra special because it's one of those rare triple-A Dutch titles.

It was great! I loved the extremely detailed landscapes with lots to see and interesting winding roads everywhere. I didn't mind at all that the areas themselves are small, because this way the developers were able to really make everything interesting and 'designed'. No kilometers of samey landscape like in the huge worlds of most MMO's. At the same time, it surprised me how tricky it could be to find out where you were supposed to go next or what to do. The game is rather linear and the areas small, but still I got stuck multiple times during my run to the finish.

I also liked that there was no map. Let me explain that, because such a thing does have its drawbacks. Of course it was less convenient to navigate and I got lost a few times when entering a new area. But the effect was that I felt a lot more involved, the world felt far more alive, breathing, bigger than it really was. It usually bugs me in games that feature a good map that I spend far too much time looking at it. It makes a game more abstract. The world itself becomes iconized and smaller, because you see on the map exactly how it runs and where it ends. The illusion is broken. This is particularly true for a game like Oblivion, where there's actually gameplay on the map (teleportation), completely ruining any sense of scale and exploration. But the areas in Overlord force you to explore them on your own and make a mental map of them based on the way roads run and landmarks are placed. It's trickier in the beginning, but endlessly more satisfying in the end. It won't be suitable for any game, but I say; let games be less dependent on maps!

Of course, there were some problems with Overlord. The game falls just short of reaching Nintendo levels of smoothness; with some puzzles getting not enough hints so you don't know what to do, and some weird pacing issues (I had to skip back and forth between two areas with a completely different atmosphere and quests to finish them both, which felt very jarring and artificial). The controls were surprisingly smooth if you look at the amount of stuff and micromanagement you have to do, but they can still befuddle you in a hectic situation, requiring far more deliberate thinking than was allowed at some moments. The game made up for these nibbles plentifully though, with its heaps and piles of charm and little touches like your minions picking up just about anything and using it as weaponry and armour. Polishing issues aside, I loved playing Overlord. The rough diamond that's tucked away in there does shine through at many occasions.

The second game on my roster is Bioshock. I've played it only for some five hours so far, but it has already blown my mind. Literally, my brain is collapsing in on itself because of the awesomeness. I've always been known to love games featuring a rich atmosphere and good story, and it just doesn't get better than this. Its horrific, underwater dystopia is so incredibly appealing in its abundantly designed luster that I can't help myself but to linger in all the areas I visit to explore every nook and cranny; scour every square metre in a bid to take it all in. And there's so much to see and hear! Posters, advertisements, propaganda, radio ads, spoken diaries, hidden messages, desperate graffiti, even the odd idiosyncratic appearance of ghosts (which was in all honesty more befitting to the derelict ghost ship of System Shock 2 than to Rapture's submerged hallways). But the point is clear: there's a wealth of context to dig into, all of it building onto this mesmerizing achievement of a world. At this point I won't spend more words on it until I've played some more, but I will mention this last thing: for the past few months I've been reading the philosophical book that inspired Bioshock to quite some degree; Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It's a delight to see its powerful ideas worked out in such a fascinating way -and in a gaming world no less. I tell you the truth; Bioshock is a pinnacle, a hallmark achievement in the gaming world. I'm certain that discerning gamers all around will agree with me.

Roderick.