I don’t want to go downstairs

but I have to.

I’m in the old lab near the dried lake at Yantar. (One of the games hub locations). My mission is to disable an psi-emitter. Frankly, that’s incidental to the sense of sheer terror that the setting engenders. At one stage, I passed a crude cross with a gas mask hanging off of it, marking a grave I presumed. When I passed it on the way back I heard a howl on the wind. Panicked I looked back and saw the same cross and just started running. After fifty metres or so I stopped and turned. It hadn’t moved. There wan’t anything hunting me. It was just a combination of the games soundtrack and that setting which put me on(over) the edge.

The game plays with the graphics to add to the sense of oppression and unrealism (which strangely enough makes it seem more realistic…). Grainy static indicates you’re entering radioactive areas, dim lighting to match the day/night cycle (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an hint of blue in the sky) and weird warping effects whenever your near an anomaly or experiencing psychic powers. Even if you sleep you’re only presented with a black screen with the sounds of sleep which sounds anything but peaceful.

Swamp water squelches in my boots as I was sneaking through the old rusted gate to the complex. I can hear the moans of the infected carry on the wind.

Initially I’ve had to retrieve information from the body of a scientist. Lying half submerged in a swamp, guarded by the walking dead and snorks. Travelling and clearing an area in the open is relatively stress free as you can see some distance around you. The only downside is that your weaponry is horribly, horribly inaccurate. Unlike most shooters, the reticule is more of a general indication of direction than an actual “this is where the bullets go” indicator. Not only is ammunition limited and specific to the weapon type but it is also heavy so you’ve got to manage your inventory cleverly. You can get into a lot of trouble shooting wildly if you’re a long way from base.

Gripping the modified AK74 I nervously check both left and right. And there, silhouetted in a doorframe is the first guard. He screams a highpitched alarm and opens fire wildly. Not bothering to aim it shoots straight from the hip and bullets kick up from the ground and walls nearby.

A few quick aimed shots later and he’s been dealt with. From around I can hear the sounds of others. Woken from torpor, closing in.

The zombified enemies really aren’t much of a problem as they’re slow and don’t aim and so can’t hit you from a distance. They can take quite a few shots before you can put them down. Also if they’re there in numbers at short to medium distances you could have problems. Luckily they tend to carry quite a bit of equipment. Snorks on the other hand can be a problem. In the open it’s easy enough to avoid them. However if you come up against one close up then there’s certainly going to be more on the way very shortly as they hunt in packs.

Glancing at the map on my PDA I see that the target is in a large industrial building. Ignoring the tightening of the throat, I clamber in a back window and start clearing room and climb the stairs. At the top of the stairs… nothing. I look again at the PDA. Down, I’ve got to go down in to the basement.

I don’t want to go downstairs.

I know that it looks like I’m doing nothing but playing games all the time, but I really don’t I would guess that my actual gameplay time is between 0-4 hours a week. It’s just that I tend to aim for games which… well… aren’t crap so they make more of impression. Does the 100+ hours of near identical gameplay in a Final Fantasy game have more impact than the 4~5 hours of near perfect gameplay of Portal or any other shorter game? Yes there’s something to be said for the sense of achievement you get from committing time to something but it’s doesn’t work when it’s 90% padding. Also I don’t like playing games just because they’re there. I want to play them because they’re good and so I tend to find myself thinking about them when I’m not playing them.

That’s the sign of a good game right there. Not the obsessive, first love, infatuation that you’ll find with a brand new game. You know, that one you could only play for 10 minutes at a friends house (Super Mario Bros back when I was a kid) or before you had to do some work (Alpha Centauri as a college student) and you then find yourself imagining possible ways the gameplay could develop. That imagined game in your head  is always better than the actual game (I find Mario – and most platformers – boring while Alpha Centauriis still good, just tends to drag in the mid-late game).

No I’m more for the middle age love of games. When you’ve gotten over the initial Limerance (yeah, there’s a prime example of making words up because you’re too lazy to read a thesaurus; infatuation, obsession etc. Take your pick) there’s the long relationship where you’re aware of the defects but you put up with them because the whole is so damn good that it more than makes up for them. And every now and then you find/experience something new and unexpected. I also tend to pick up, play for a bit and drop them which is a nice gentle way to work your way through a bunch of games.

This is why I’m usually a six months to a year behind new releases in games. That initial excitement/hype has calmed down so it’s easier to tell whether the game worth my (increasingly precious) time. Any initial bugs/patches have gone out already. And commentary on the game will reflect it as a whole rather than just the first hour or two. Also, this is why I’m so reluctant to read anything into previews/reviews as there’s no real way to test the whole experience with the limited time available….

…wow, that was quite off-topic.

Original image is from Flickr user fotografer. Darkend with the Gimp.

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