Monday, May 4, 2009

Dumb, mindless fun. Highly recommended.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column in The New Indian Express.

Playing Tigon Studios' recently released Wheelman on the PS3 managed to touch a long-forgotten chord in me – the one which makes me enjoy extremely stupid yet fun games. I'll play these for hours – with a stupid grin on my face, which confounds my wife and thrills my son.

Wheelman is never going to be counted as an all-time classic, but when it's fun, it's heaps of fun. First, you play as Vin Diesel. Unless there's a game based on Chuck Norris or Mr.T coming out anytime soon, that can't be beat for sheer awesomeness. Second, you drive a number of cars, bikes and trucks performing some wicked maneouvres on the streets of Barcelona. You'll take flying leaps from vehicle to vehicle, perform screeching handbrake turns, pull off some absolutely insane stunts and participate in truly Hollywood-style hi-speed chases. The wonderfully forgiving, floaty vehicle physics and the relatively low difficulty levels make Wheelman one of those games you'll play for hours, without even understanding why you didn't stop much earlier.

It's got a crap story, terrible acting, ho-hum graphics and annoyingly crippled on-foot shooter gameplay. But when you're driving an eighteen wheeler truck over a bridge, knocking enemy vehicles into the water, and simultaneously dodging launched grenades, you won't care.

Wheelman, at least for me personally, follows in a long tradition of games that shouldn't be so much fun, but undoubtedly are. They're not smart or clever. They don't have great interactive narratives, or layered, nuanced characters, or complex, deep gameplay mechanics. Most of them involve blowing things up, breaking things down, or slicing and dicing. But hey, they're fun to play.

Okay – I'll admit it. The whole article was a setup so I could talk about Serious Sam. Just when every game was trying to be Half-Life, by adding storylines and characters and sophistication, Serious Sam went the other route and delivered crazy, mad shooting gameplay where you just had to shoot hundreds of things that would run at you (if you could stop laughing at their ridiculousness). It was astounding, breathtaking fun – and had no right to be. Dumb shooters were supposed to be dead. People wanted more depth. More cerebral gameplay. More moody atmosphere. Right? Apparently not, and thank God for that.

Then, there's the Party Crash mode in the Burnout games that has to be one of the silliest, laugh-out-loud game modes in recent history. There's something to be said for a bunch of increasingly drunken people passing a controller around and seeing who can cause the most carnage at a traffic junction. Burnout is probably the leading racing franchise in gaming today (eat dust, NFS), but Party Crash is easily the most frivolous and addictive diversion it offers. I've never seen it fail to liven up a party.

I've also always enjoyed the Mortal Kombat titles, despite the obvious superiority of the Soul Calibur, Street Fighter or Tekken series in terms of deep, sophisticated fighting mechanics. There's something stupidly fun about MK. And of course, there's that announcer, too. I'm in fact drawing great amounts of enjoyment from the latest iteration, Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe – much delight watching Batman, Superman and The Joker getting medieval on Liu Kang, Raiden and the MK gang.

There's something about the basic, direct fun factor of games like these that taps directly into the essential appeal of gaming itself – the original classics like Space Invaders, Pole Position, Defender and Pac-Man were astoundingly simple yet undeniably addictive. Something there to think about.

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