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Sonic Generations (PC), Sonic Team/Devil’s Details

Generations, like other subtitles such as Gaiden or Densetsu, tends to create a needless sense of distance and is often used to placate children who refuse any sort of changes to their favorite games – even if those turn out to be more diverse or adventurous titles than their tepid continuity flag-bearers. It’s the kind of word that gets spreadsheet-loving executives free lunches since it’s marketable, safe and can describe just about anything – from Lego sets to Nintendo’s newfound love for grandmas, from the Rolling Stones to Pepsi.

But here, the context is that of a “members only” club. Here’s Sonic, the quintessential mascot of mascot games that, perhaps unlike any other, has illustrated its parent company’s history near flawlessly, from stardom to some murky depths, doing its best inviting yet conservative stance. Whatever feelings you nurture for the spiky bundle of action’s past games, Sega has you covered by condensing 20 years of Sonic into one single title. Everyone’s invited. For better or for worse.

Luxuriant set-pieces abound, color and music roll out the red carpets, but their context is as rickety as the game’s colision detection. Everything is functional and nostalgic – just not as forward thinking and vivid as it could’ve been. At it’s core, Generations is a place where everything happens but nothing ever does. Spiral platforms crumble right after you’re given a life-saving speed boost, mechanical fishes that chase players are only props, foes are convenient platforms or minor nuisances, and bumping into hazards hidden from your immediate field of vision because you’re locked onto terminal velocity are still a reminder that, yes, Sonic’s platforming was always slippery at best.

On a positive note, the faux two dimensional levels are welcome if only because, much like those first blocks in Super Mario Bros. invited one to jump and reach out to them, so do Generation’s revisitation of expansive, multi-layered levels bathed in Sega blue skies still remind one of how it was to run across them while maintaining momentum. Provided you never had a problem with the hedgehog’s mostly off-hands approach to running, these segments are a highlight – not because they’re somehow “retro”, but because they’re more sober and focused than their three-dimensional counterparts. There’s also a handful of optional challenge levels that could have been incorporated onto the main levels instead, but this is more of a symptom of the japanese industry’s unwillingness to challenge their audience than a game-centric complaint.

Isolated, most of Generations’ elements fail to inspire – a poorly implemented skill system, “me too” list of collectibles that ignores the existence of Google and fansites, and the horrid cast of characters – but if you somehow managed to spend you childhood enjoying Sonic more than the likes of Dynamite Headdy, it’s a breezy, colorful ride overall.

Me, I’m waiting for the Sonic CD re-release.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC), Eidos Montreal

In its prime, Deus Ex was many things. A game that defined the PC? Maybe. A classic that symbolized the platform’s legacy along with Thief, Ultima and System Shock? Yes. A game about a bastard in a trench coat ruining people’s lives, bothering women in restrooms and healing bullet holes with chocolate bars? Definitely. Human Revolution is very much the same game, a rare breed of personal playground and fixed narrative, where choice and consequence are at the forefront of the experience. It’s also a prime example of how most people were playing the wrong games in the past – for all the claims of how the PC as a gaming platform is dead, nearly every commercial success on consoles shares DNA with it.

The first moments introduce Adam Jensen, a security director for Sarif Industries whose life is nearly snuffed out and undergoes cybernetic surgery to survive. This establishes the main themes of the game, from technological advancements to humanity and identity. Storywise, it’s at its best dealing with the network of Jensen’s friends and foes, the conflicts intimately tied to the lead character’s past and wisely ignoring major conspiracies. At its worst, other than allusions made to titillate people who can still quote an eleven year old game, there’s not much that makes Human Revolution a prequel to Deus Ex. The ending tries to remedy this but the result is fan service at its laziest.

But it’s that personal playground, filled with possibilities for stealth, combat and role-play, that really matters. Even at its most basic, stealth action is a pleasure the likes of which Splinter Cell has wandered away from, and dialogue is concise and witty in ways Bioware still has yet to achieve. Levels are no longer about playing catch in office cubicles like they were in Invisible War but are overall smaller than those in Deus Ex; not much of a complaint, since the first game had its fair share of fillers. The bevy of cybernetic abilities (augmentations) with which to go invisible, corrupt electronic systems, disable alarms and perform great feats of agility are wonderful tools, but these wouldn’t matter without a robust infrastructure. It’s there, and it’s a fantastic one. Everything else is smarts and programming.

But there are issues. While rewarding experience points for enemy deaths doesn’t rob one of player agency, it nonetheless makes it clear which choices in combat are “better” by assigning more experience to specific methods – a trap the first game, a decade ago, had the foresight to avoid. Hacking, although certainly more contextual than Bioshock‘s rendition of Pipemania, is mainly a scaled back version of Introversion’s Uplink and as the game progresses, it’s presence is exacerbated, becoming almost exclusively the only way to uncover information in the last chapters. The DLC handling isn’t particularly bright, with extras invading your inventory right before the start of the first mission. Did you choose to take a stun gun for non-lethal approaches? Good, but even if you don’t feel like it, here’s a double barrel shotgun just in case. Perhaps the biggest offender is the inclusion of end of level bosses, a videogame convention that doesn’t even have the decency to be a particularly smart application of said convention, and one that neglects character development in favor of average gunfights.

Putting that aside, however, Human Revolution’s major triumph is that of relief – someone “gets” what Deus Ex is about, and someone still cares enough. That the game manages to get many things right shouldn’t be seen as a miracle. This is 2011, many of them should be the rule rather than the exception. But top hats must be thrown into the air and monocles adjusted for a game that, unlike the industry itself, knows that the past can be more than selling nostalgia.

Stealth, combat, role-play: promiscuous words and play mechanics that in the hands of Eidos’ Montreal division seem quite dignified again. The same can be said of Human Revolution in particular, and of Deus Ex in general. Those who wanted oranges got tangerines instead. That’s certainly better than lemon-lime.

Limbo (PC), Playdead

Not to be confused with Bryan Ferry’s song of the same name – though both chose to honour their namesakes with a certain conceptual vagueness – Playdead’s platformer hit Steam some months ago, meaning it’s time to catch up on semi-recent titles I didn’t fully play before. Often compared with World of Goo and Braid, Limbo has three things in common with those games: its independent frame of development, a fanbase placing misguided aspirations of mainstream collapse on its shoulders and puzzles. Out of these, the last one is the only to warrant attention.

Limbo is a study in several dualities: the afforementioned brain teasers with platforming, the neatly balanced black and white aesthetic, a sense of being lost even though you are constantly moving, and a journey rife with imagery that goes from joy to outright despair. The stark visuals are perhaps its greatest asset, as they tread a very fine line between the narrative and visual contrasts of the game. There are traces of a visual language that, while underdeveloped, is well used (such as light suddenly bursting from the background after the protagonist makes a narrow escape or overcomes a tricky jump) and details better seen rather than described.

Mechanically, Limbo gravitates between careful platforming and an escalating difficulty curve that, while never obtuse, will result in some trial and error. Less positive is the context of these puzzles in the later half of the game; what begins as an organic playing field gradually becomes a box-and-lever crescendo that only barely manages to sidestep boredom. Most of these obstacles aren’t difficult to understand or solve, but seem to part ways with those initial moments of discovery that accompanied them too soon. Thankfully, and unlike Braid, where the superb mechanics were at odds with the condescending narrative, Limbo has the guts to let players rationalize things by themselves.

Of course, this kind of presentation becomes a double-edge sword, though calling Limbo “vague” isn’t so much an insult as a declaration of intent, one made by the authors themselves. An interpretation of its story seems pointless – many theories have already been put forward, from placing the game in a nightmare to an actual limbo and even world wars – as the overall experience doesn’t try to bolt together, let alone justify, all the pieces. At face value, it’s a set of levels where a few noteworthy moments and the presentation elevate an otherwise simple game; but then, it doesn’t need to be anything more than that to offer around three pleasant hours.

Unlike its supporters would have you believe, Limbo is not a “touching” experience that “subverts the medium in interesting ways”. It is, nonetheless, a game that succeeds in what it set out to do, capable of understated beauty without succumbing to lofty “indie” aspirations, and of offering the right amount of heart and play to not become another The Path.

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