What with all current the hoo-haa regarding various new console releases, recently I had the urge to dust off my gaming madskillz and play a couple of titles that I have meaning to look at for a while. Mr Paul kindly gave me a copy of God of War about a year ago, but to be honest I dismissed it completely at the time, because it looked a little bit of a teenagers game. You see, I'm an adult, I like mature games with decent storylines and non-linear interaction and if they must be violent, then at least make it tasteful violence. :P Hence the reason that for the last few months I have been playing a rather different sort of game to God of War, called Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Oblivion is a role-playing game in which you play some punter who is rather randomly drawn into a whirlwind quest to save the world from ultimate doom. Okay - so the story's a bit of a hack, but the game is pretty much about as non-linear as you can get, without making it so random that the player doesn't know where they are or what to do. The game world is completely huuuge, and while it is possible to 'fast travel' by clicking on a map, you can quite feasibly walk the whole way should you choose to do so. And you might as well - this is first game I have played where, when descending a mountain trail at sunset, I have actually stopped to admire the view. It really is rather impressive.
The vastness of the world, and the non-linear method you can use to explore it, is both the game's strength and weakness. There's no doubt that having such a large and engrossing world is wonderful; there's one large city and several small towns dotted about the map, and loads of stuff to do and explore in each one. You can spend hours, days even, just poking around and sticking your nose in to the thousands of side-quests that exist. And the 'main' quest, where the central story of the game unfolds, is always there in the background for you to do as much or as little as you like - until you complete it of course.
Yet therein lies the problem. Classic epics like Final Fantasy VII worked well due the world developing alongside the main story, Oblivion's world feels static by comparison. It doesn't help that they used the same five actors to voice every character in the game, and the 'random' conversations between NPCs (non-player-characters) become laughably repetative. At the end of the day, Oblivion's failings in this regards highlight an interesting point - while non-linear gaming gives a greater sense of freedom, unless the gaming world develops over time, that same non-linearity hamstrings the game as much as fully-linear-walk-this-direction-only experience.
Which, neatly enough, returns us to God of War. After getting it, the game gathered dust in it's box for a while until my old flat mate, Chris Jennions, picked it up one bored evening, about a year ago. While half-watching him play the first few levels, my initial suspicions seemed to be confirmed - it appeared to be nothing more than button-mashing, disengage-brain, 3D scrolling beat-em-up. Yet, after a few weeks, I noticed that Chris was still playing it, and thoroughly enjoying it. When I discovered, some time later, that itwon a few 'Game-of-the-Year' awards and that even the very strict Edge magazine awarded it 8/10, I decided that one day I would get round to playing it. A fortnight ago, that day arrived. And don't you know it, it's rather good.
It is still, of course, a button-mashing, disengage-brain, 3D scrolling beat-em-up. What separates it from the dross that is 99% of the rest of the games in this genre is the fact that it obviously has very high production values. The camera, traditionally a sticking point in such games, is almost always in exactly the right spot, following you relentlessly through corridors and across deserts, and panning, zooming and rotating to show your environment when necessary. The graphics are great considering it's only the PS2, and everything from the greek-mythology story, to the control system that expands throughout the game, to the suitably grandiose soundtrack, is well conceived. It is undoubtedly an entirely on-rails linear experience, with little chance to deviate from the path in front of you, and as such it couldn't be more different to Oblivion. But if I was forced to play one of the two games again, I would probably choose God of War - maybe I'm still a teenager at heart!